Mike Montgomery

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was devastating. Today there are new ways to help communities help themselves in the aftermath of a disaster.

At 5 a.m. on April 18, 1906, San Francisco was decimated by a powerful earthquake. Between the quake and the fires that followed, 3,000 people lost their lives.

More than 100 years later we still live with the risk of another giant California earthquake. And while we’ve made great strides in construction, building retrofitting and fire safety, the next life-saving innovations are going to come from the technology sector.

The future of emergency communications is, without a doubt, both digital and mobile. In a recent report on the topic, Michael Kleeman, a senior fellow at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, pointed out that in the event of an earthquake, post-disaster warnings could be sent out over cellphone networks, and “find me” apps could be used to locate missing people and identify shelters.

Those are great uses of technology, but I believe we can go even further. By building networks and connecting data resources before a disaster, everyone can be better prepared to respond when the worst happens.

Appallicious, a Bay Area-based tech company, is working with the new Resilient San Francisco program as part of a citywide initiative to use technology to connect communities and make them more resilient in the face of a natural disaster. This is a model for other municipalities and agencies within state government to embrace.

Appallicious is doing this through its Community Resilience Platform, which provides one virtual location for communities to share the kind of data that will make the difference between life and death in an emergency.

Take, for example, chainsaws. To saves lives during disasters like fires and earthquakes, chainsaws are one of the most useful tools around. Chances are there are several people who own chainsaws in every neighborhood, but without a central place to store this kind of information, one would never know it.

“We are taking everything you need as a community or a responder and putting it into a single platform,” said Yo Yoshida, the CEO and founder of Appallicious. “We’re aggregating it with predictive disaster models that any leadership or community can access.”

Appallicious has been testing this platform within two different communities, including the Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Council, which serves native American tribes in Oregon and Washington states, and the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco. In both cases they’ve found that by working with the community, understanding their priorities and making them part of the process, they’ve fine-tuned their databases and connections that will be invaluable in case of a disaster.

In order for tech solutions to help us in the event of an emergency, we need to make sure that our communications infrastructure is advanced, strong and widely accessible. That means upgrading to next-generation communications networks wherever possible and making sure everyone is connected to the Internet. Continuing to rely upon outdated voice service over copper wires to deliver connectivity isn’t the future because all the innovation is being built into Internet-based apps, social media and smart devices.

The problem is that California’s communications policies have much more in common with 1906 than 2016. They are all focused on herding people onto outdated traditional phones, which is putting them in a dangerous spot when disaster strikes: cut-off from everything innovation in emergency services has to offer.

We need to encourage everyone to have access to the Internet and devices that can keep them connected in an emergency. To do so takes a commitment at every level of government from a policy perspective as well as a procurement perspective.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll see devastation on the scale of the 1906 earthquake again. But if (and potentially when) the big one hits, making sure everyone is connected to new technology will be a matter of life and death. We need to be better prepared to help one another using the latest technology rather than leaving people stuck in the past.


This commentary is published in Summer 2016 issue of Techwire magazine. Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a statewide technology advocacy coalition. Disclaimer: Appallicious is a member of the coalition.