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As Citizens Look for Hurricane Information Online, Governments Scramble to Deliver

BY Nick Judd | Friday, August 26 2011

NASA footage of astronauts observing Hurricane Irene on Thursday from the International Space Station.

Just one day before a major hurricane is expected to rake the entire U.S. Eastern Seaboard and days after the release of an American Red Cross study indicating that Americans increasingly rely on government and institutions to communicate through social media and mobile technology, there were a number of indications today that this reliance — while supposedly more durable than traditional methods — comes with its own drawbacks.

While North Carolina and New Jersey produced information for residents on their websites, the sites for New York City — which the oncoming Hurricane Irene is expected to hit very early Sunday morning and may do so at hurricane force — failed to load for many residents for a period Friday morning, as the city was publishing and publicizing information about what to do during and after the hurricane. City Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne apologized for the outage and directed people elsewhere — to the city Office of Emergency Management's Facebook page, naturally, and to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's personal page, where he frequently publishes city-related press releases and other information.

NYC.gov appears to be back online, but the city's Office of Emergency Management website warns that the site may be slow "due to unusually high traffic."

Not for nothing is one of Sterne's near-term projects to sell the Bloomberg administration on a radically modernized website in terms of both functionality and infrastructure. Until that upgrade happens, though, some locals are taking it upon themselves: OpenPlan's Philip Ashlock has set up a mirror of the city's Hurricane Irene-related data and links on Amazon cloud servers. Friday afternoon, a city spokesman emailed to say that the city was serving a slimmed-down website provided with the help of commercial hardware. The city is now only serving information pertaining to the hurricane on its homepage to minimize load; NYC.gov handled a record 4.3 million hits yesterday.

At the federal level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency today announced a set of mobile apps to allow people to store their own personal preparedness information, like a family evacuation plan and checklists for a supply cache, and to find shelter and disaster recovery centers.

"When we built the app, we kept the disaster survivor in mind, making sure much of the information would be available even if cell phone service isn’t," FEMA's senior manager for digital engagement, Shayne Adamski, wrote in a blog post, "so you’ll be able to access the important information on how to safe after a disaster, as well as your family emergency meeting locations."

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate delivers an Aug. 25 update on Hurricane Irene via FEMA's YouTube channel.

The FEMA apps are available for Android devices, which are now the most popular, but not iPhone or BlackBerry — yet. Both of those platforms have more restrictions and a longer timetable to get into the app market than Android, but it's unclear if that's part of the reason why.

The apps also don't provide information about specific disasters — there are no updates or alerts included. FEMA instead advises people to listen to their local officials and call 911 if they are in an emergency and need to speak to a first responder.

In Washington, D.C., agencies will be using the #DCIrene hashtag to convey disaster information. In Newark, N.J., in Essex County, just across the river from New York City, Mayor Cory Booker is publicising video and information from a press conference on the coming storm on Twitter and Facebook.

And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency is providing up-to-date information about the storm in real time.

While these resources are all citizen-facing, that hasn't stopped some officials from outreach to developers as well. In New York, Sterne has reached out to New York's software development community to publicize geographic data and shapefiles relevant to hurricane evacuation zoens and evacuation centers — the building blocks necessary to pull together map-based applications.

"As always, we welcome use of New York City public data to serve and inform New Yorkers. Please feel free to contact me with your questions," Sterne wrote to the subscribers to one popular list for New York's tech community.

This post was updated Friday afternoon with new information about NYC.gov's web traffic.

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