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9/11/01-02: 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 Ð our airplanes Ð 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's Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC.gov is New York City's electronic government portal or "one-stop government site." The site boasts more than 30,000 pages of content and 100 online transactional services.
  • The New York State Department of Public Service regulates electric, gas, telecommunications, steam, water and cable to insure that these utilities are reliable and low-cost. The Public Service Commission includes up to five members who are appointed by the Governor of New York State and serve six-year terms. The department's goal is to promote competition and streamline regulation. They offer information and services for consumers about choosing utility companies and filing complaints.
  • The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) is the third oldest scientific organization in America. The Manhattan-based Academy promotes the role science and technology in fostering social and economic development through analysis and discussion of public policy issues. The Science and Technology Policy Forum, a NYAS project, organizes public meetings, examines science and technology policy and brings leaders in the field.
  • The Internet Policy Institute (IPI) is the nation's first independent, nonprofit research, and educational institute created to provide objective, high-quality analysis, research, education, and outreach on public policy issues affecting and affected by the global development and use of the Internet.
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. established to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values.
  • E The People is a nonpartisan site helping over 400 online newspapers, television stations and Internet portals bring government closer to the people. E The People is the organizer of America's Interactive Town Hall, an initiative that has collected 180,840 electronic signatures on 3,520 petitions. This Web site allows you to sign petitions and pay tickets on-line.
  • The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) is responsible for the city's effective utilization of existing and emerging voice, video, and data technologies in government operations and its delivery of services to the public.

    Other Recommendations:

    Privacy and Security:

    • The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) works to promote democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age. The center seeks practical solutions to enhance free expression and privacy in global communications technologies. It is dedicated to building consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.
    • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. This Web site includes information on consumer protection issues such as privacy and identity theft, and business and economic issues such as e-commerce and antitrust.

    Digital Divide:

    • Digital Partners is a nonprofit institute that helps create economic development opportunities for the poor by fostering collaboration between digital entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders.
    • New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) works with the private sector to generate jobs and strengthen the economy by attracting business expansion and helping the established businesses in New York. The Digital NYC program helps hi-tech businesses find affordable, pre-wired office space in New York's new technology districts.

    Intellectual Property and Copyrights:

    • The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the trade group that represents companies and individuals in the recording industry. They work to protect intellectual property rights worldwide and the First Amendment rights of artists; conduct consumer, industry and technical research; and monitor, review and influence state and federal laws, regulations and policies.


    • United States Department of Commerce promotes job creation, economic growth, sustainable development and improved living standards by working with the private sector, universities and communities. Year 2000 initiatives include formulating e-commerce policy and closing the digital divide.

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