Using data to prepare communities for disasters

From VT News | October 31, 2019

When disaster strikes, every second is critical. Professor Chris Zobel has been using data to help the Red Cross pre-position resources for optimal disaster response.  

“Not only will our approach allow assets to be more accurately prepositioned to reduce immediate suffering, it also will save time and resources that can then be put toward other types of disaster response and relief activities,” he said.

Zobel and co-researcher Andy Arnette, who received a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and now teaches at the University of Wyoming, worked with the Red Cross in Wyoming and Colorado to build a computer model allocating assets to prepare for the possibility of multiple disasters in a region. Their model is adaptable to a variety of problems, including hurricanes, floods, damaging winds, forest fires, and infectious disease outbreaks.

Zobel, a member of the Global Change Center, and his graduate students have also looked at using 911 calls to help characterize the range of impacts that were felt by the population of New York City when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this research has the potential to help cities better understand their potential vulnerability to such disasters, as well as to help them strengthen their resilience to future events.

“It’s very rewarding to apply data modeling and analysis techniques to humanitarian problems,” Zobel said. “Although this is a different focus than many people would expect to find in a business school, the Pamplin College of Business is very much committed to supporting research that can help improve people’s lives. By leveraging available data and improving decision-making, we can help organizations improve their abilities to manage their responses to a disaster and thus contribute to protecting people’s lives and livelihoods.” 

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