Fort McMurray is getting back on its feet after the devastating wildfire that ripped through the northern Alberta community and destroyed large parts of the region in May. The safe evacuation of more than 90,000 people during the early days of the fire is a testament to both the citizenry's quick thinking and the commendable response efforts of the Canadian Red Cross and similar organizations.
With only one major road out of Fort McMurray, it is far from easy to prepare for something like an emergency mass evacuation of the city. And it's notoriously difficult to control the spread of wildfire anywhere. After the blaze, Mayor Melissa Blake said, "I thought we were doing a decent job until we experienced this, but I am not sure there is anything that could have prevented it."
As we look ahead to future natural disasters, though, is there a potential solution? The emergence of big data and more advanced analytical tools, along with the proliferation of cheaper, more powerful electronic sensors, could allow communities to be better prepared for the ever-present threat of natural catastrophe.
Call it what you will – the Internet of Things, the smart city, digital government – there is suddenly a bounty of intriguing possibilities in applying digital technology and connected hardware to civic challenges.
A growing list of cities around the world is making it a reality, using vast sensor networks and data platforms as the foundation for delivering clean drinking water, for the efficient management of road traffic, sewage and logistical systems, for fire and flood control and more.
Buenos Aires suffered flooding that claimed 101 lives in 2013, so the Argentine capital prioritized the creation of a sensor network to measure the direction and speed of water, identifying areas that needed attention in real time. The city went flood free in 2014, even as neighbouring areas got soaked.
Stephen Goldsmith, the former deputy mayor of New York, took to measuring that city's "smartness" by how effectively it could anticipate and solve problems before they occurred and how quickly it mobilized to fix things that go wrong. His office used predictive analytics technology to improve the accuracy of responses to fire emergencies.
High-speed fire response in a compact urban environment such as New York is one thing, but there are still questions about whether a wildfire sensor network covering an expanse as vast as Alberta is feasible. Cost tends to be the first question that enters a city planner's mind. However, in the case of sensors, the price of Lidar – a key Internet of Things technology that uses lasers to measure distance to a target – has plummeted from $150,000 a sensor to $1,000 in recent years.
Meanwhile, pay-as-you-go use of cloud computing has opened up a new world of possibilities, even for the most budget-conscious civic leaders. The most ambitious among them are not only thinking about sensor networks making life easier for public sector workers, but also how tech can engage and organize citizens in times of urgency. In a situation such as the Fort McMurray wildfire, a smartphone app linked to a sensor system could have informed citizens and rescuers of exactly where to go and where not to go in tandem.
The task of rebuilding Fort McMurray is under way and planners are using the destruction as an opportunity to rethink the community's infrastructure. It would be flippant to think they can eradicate the threat of wildfires completely, but today's technology at least suggests that it's possible to mitigate the damage of future natural disasters.