Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Terrorist-Hunting Software Saved Lives During Hurricane Sandy

After the storm, nonprofits working on relief used predictive Palantir software--best known for its use by the CIA and FBI--to coordinate disaster response, rescue, and logistics.

When superstorm Sandy devastated New York this past fall, rescuers faced a logistical nightmare. In storm ravaged neighborhoods in Staten Island, the Rockaways, and Brooklyn, the traditional pattern of disaster relief was disrupted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with state and local authorities, was poorly suited to deal with urban catastrophe. A disparate group of local emergency responders--primarily individuals, community organizations, and elements from Occupy Wall Street--were on the ground delivering food, medicine, and supplies to storm victims. Many of them used services from nonprofit Direct Relief, who license logistical software from shadowy data-analysis firm Palantir.

After Sandy made landfall, Direct Relief used Palantir products to correlate events on the ground with local aid demands and projected trends in the area. Palantir, which was founded by tech icon Peter Thiel and received initial funding from the CIA-backed venture capital firm In-Q-Tel (which “identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency”), specializes in data parsing products that let analysts correlate massive data sets with each other. Direct Relief’s software package took technology originally intended for the intelligence community and put it to work predicting where medicine, food, and clothing needs would be greatest.

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