We’ve Already Seen Glimpses of the Future in Puerto Rico’s Recovery Efforts

A Project Loon balloon in a hangar.

Amid the stories of devastation incurred by this hurricane season, there are some promising signs to be found on the increasing role technology can play in responding to and recovering from serious disasters.

Take Puerto Rico, for example, where only 16 percent of the island has electricity, less than 8 percent of roads are open and a little more than half of the island has functioning telecommunications systems in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Full recovery will take years and will necessitate close coordination between Puerto Rican authorities, federal agencies and the private sector.

Just last week a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, Inc., announced it received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to test its experimental Project Loon over the island. This technology uses high-altitude balloons to deliver Internet and cellular service to areas without existing physical infrastructure. In Puerto Rico, Project Loon will help provide emergency cellular service.

Though it might be too soon to tell whether this is the best solution to the island’s connectivity problem, Project Loon has been successfully used in previous disasters. Earlier in 2017, the balloon technology was deployed to Peru, where serious floods limited Internet access in three cities. The balloons were deployed for three months and enabled users to exchange large amounts of data, the equivalent of nearly 30 million instant messages.

We also saw technology step in when Tesla founder Elon Musk took to Twitter to offer to work with Puerto Rico to rebuild the electric grid there. Musk suggested that Tesla has had some successes on smaller islands and can scale to assist Puerto Rico. Musk was likely referring to Tesla’s work in American Samoa, where one island has transitioned from diesel fuel to 100 percent solar. Additionally, through the use of Tesla Powerpacks, the island can stay fully powered for up to three days without any sunlight. Tesla has met with Gov. Ricardo Rossello and is currently working with authorities to bring power back to large swaths of the island.

It is unclear how far this conversation has progressed, but it still highlights the potential private sector innovators to collaborate with state and local policymakers to aid in disaster relief and drive the economy.

A more down-to-earth example occurred in Houston, where first responders used video conferencing to triage requests for emergency services in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Given the high cost of dispatching an ambulance each time someone calls with a medical emergency, Houston authorities used video chatting to determine whether a caller requires an ambulance, of which there are a finite number and each dispatch is very expensive, or just needs a ride to the emergency room.

Though it’s still too early to declare victory and suggest technology will be the cure-all in disaster recovery, these innovations point to a promising future model for how emerging technology can improve the way government functions.

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