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A Failure On 9/11, Life-Saving Innovations Afterwards

 It would be easy to see technology as the bad guy in the events of September 11th. The terrorists, after all, used our own technology our airplanes against us. Rescue workers, several reports have concluded, were forced to rely on Inadequate communication technology. And the breakdown of technological infrastructure in the city -- electric, gas, broadcasting and telecommunication networks -- caused so many people so much frustration and anxiety. The city government itself was hit hard, according to New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer, head of the council's Committee on Technology: "Over 50,000 government phone lines were disabled; 26 municipal buildings were shut down; Internet capability was severely disrupted," she said. "We nearly lost the city's Web site, NYC.gov. And we had to build many Information Technology systems from scratch."

In a recent City Council report on 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was sharply criticized for not reimbursing the city for over $30 million in damage to information technology (IT) equipment that resulted from the attacks. As of July 2002, the payment was still pending approval and FEMA had cut its 9/11 recovery aid from 15 percent to only five percent.

But there is a flip side. The fast and efficient restoration of New York's electricity and communication networks was vital to the recovery effort. This is because each of these networks relies on the smooth functioning of the other. The city's electricity and telecommunications providers, Con Edison and Verizon, worked tirelessly around the clock to restore services despite having suffered extreme damage at their facilities.

And 9/11 sparked innovative uses of technology by city agencies in the emergency management efforts. Many new technologies such as high-tech maps, databases, and small electronic tracking devices were used during the recovery effort. These applications can be seen everywhere from the Chief Medical Examiner's Office to the Health Department and Housing Authority.

The rebuilding and recovery effort taught us many important lessons about the functioning of technological systems during times of crisis. The Internet emerged as one of 9/11's technological heroes because of its reliability as a back-up communication network when wired and wireless telecommunication networks were overloaded. In addition, the Internet was also used to store data because of its easy accessibility and decentralized nature. The city's website was used to relay vital emergency information.

High-tech maps of the city proved to be a vital resource during the crisis. Now, the same type of high-tech maps that were used during the recovery effort are being used by community boards to identify problems in their neighborhoods.

Databases were also important. But, since the city has no common database system, IBM created one that allowed the data to be entered electronically and transmitted to different agencies. This avoided having to ask families of victims to fill out the same form many times over.

Small tracking devices or Global Positioning Systems from PowerLoc Technologies, Inc. were key in helping to remove debris from Ground Zero. The technology allowed the city to document the exact location and amount of debris efficiently and flexibly. Similarly, personal items and evidence found among the debris were tracked and recorded with a small scanning device using GPS technology from LinksPoint.

Now, with these lessons in mind, the city is rebuilding its technological infrastructure. Some of the interesting technological opportunities recommended in the City Council report include making better use of existing technologies such as the Internet and text-messaging, redundant telecommunications networks, aerial photography, high-tech maps and NYC.gov. In addition, completely new initiatives such as a web-based emergency portal and a local Emergency Technology Corps are envisioned.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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