Turning big data into action: Know when to evacuate

Rice University researchers have built a web-based calculator that predicts the risks associated with hurricanes for a specific address in Houston. The tool uses historical and meteorological data to generate a risk profile for residents of the city in real-time (hat tip Discovery News). As a former Houston resident who has lived through several hurricanes, this is a pretty nifty combination of a variety of data sources into a tool that helps regular people makes decisions.
The tool, which is limited to Harris County, was inspired by the mass evacuations that occurred during Hurricane Rita in 2005. Millions of Houstonians fled the storm and blocked major roadways. Not all of those who left needed too, but absent hard data it’s hard to know what to do if you’re reading about a Category 5 storm heading your way.
For those who stayed, understanding their risk of power failure or wind damage might help them prepare for the storm in ways they may not have otherwise. That’s why I like this calculator and project so much. It takes quantifiable elements such as weather, geographic and historical flood plan information and analyzes it with some algorithm or algorithms (hopefully it’s open so others can improve upon it) and delivers actionable information in a format that people can relate to.
This to me is the promise of big data — and something that more and more data nerds should focus on. The end result of all the data crunching isn’t a spreadsheet or even a table. It’s a decision, be it a manager asking themselves if they should stock more ice cream this July or a citizen wondering if they should evacuate before an oncoming storm. Data — even prettied into a chart — isn’t what most people are after. They just want to know what they should do.