USC Price School of Public Policy

Heikkila highlights how technology can improve disaster response in China, beyond

January 19, 2017

By Cristy Lytal

In a world of customized traffic reports generated from our digital movements and targeted banner ads gleaned from search engine queries, it’s almost impossible for personal data to escape the gaping maw of ubiquitous technologies. But these occasionally invasive technologies could also save lives during a natural disaster, asserted Professor Eric J. Heikkila, director of the Office of Global Engagement at the USC Price School of Public Policy, during a keynote presentation given at the 2016 International Symposium on Emergency Management in Fuzhou, the capital city of China’s Fujian Province.

USC Price Professor Eric J. Heikkila, director of international initiatives

“If we’re willing to allow invasive technologies to be used to sell commercial products, why wouldn’t we consider allowing them to be used to save lives in the case of unfolding natural disasters?” Heikkila asked. “At least technologically, there could be access to a vast amount of data that could be drawn upon in real time to help protect vulnerable populations during emergencies.”

Building smart systems

In contrast to a traditional emergency response, Heikkila’s suggested paradigm acknowledges the rapidly evolving relationship between government responders, civil society and technology. Extending far beyond smart phones and other obvious computing devices, technology now imbues everyday objects such as parking meters, cars and air conditioning systems with “smart” capabilities, forming what is referred to as the “Internet of Things.” This ubiquitous technology, in combination with the burgeoning amount of available data about past and current disasters, creates opportunities to establish enhanced protocols for responding to everything from floods to earthquakes to wildfires.

James G. Featherstone, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Homeland Security Advisory Council and former general manager of the L.A. Emergency Management Department

The event’s other keynote speaker, whom Heikkila had urged the conference organizers to invite, was James G. Featherstone, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Homeland Security Advisory Council and former general manager of the City of Los Angeles Emergency Management Department. During his address, Featherstone discussed practical and logistical aspects of emergency management, such as freight movement and grocery store resupply. Featherstone also serves on the advisory committee of USC Price’s Safe Communities Institute.

“He was fantastic for their conference, because he could speak as someone who has been actually in charge of emergency response for a large American city,” Heikkila said. “It’s wonderful how this interplay can work between top-level practitioners and those of us who are working more in a research realm.”

A growing partnership

These keynote speeches at the International Symposium on Emergency Management are part of an ongoing collaboration between Fuzhou University and USC Price. The partnership started when the Fujian Provincial Government asked Fuzhou University to enhance their expertise in emergency management.

USC supported these efforts by organizing a workshop – led by Professors Heikkila and Professor Mike Nichol from USC Price, along with Professor Najmedin Meshkati from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering – focusing on a process for establishing an Institute for Emergency Management at Fuzhou University. USC Price also participated in the 2015 International Symposium on Emergency Management in Beijing. And more recently, Wang Jin, a faculty member from Fuzhou University specializing in computer science, arrived at USC Price, where she will engage in research on emergency management.

Unique student experiences

In addition, the collaboration has created several opportunities for students to learn abroad. During a summer 2016 international lab, USC Price master’s students partnered with scholars and professors from Fuzhou University’s School of Economics and Management to provide emergency preparedness recommendations for the Department of Human Resources and Social Security of the Fujian Provincial Government.

For a summer 2017 international lab, Heikkila is planning to bring a team of USC Price master’s students to Milan and Rome to partner with Bocconi University on an emergency management project for the Italian government’s Department of Civil Protection.

Building on these efforts, Heikkila is working to secure grant funding for a project that leverages ubiquitous technology to enhance emergency preparedness closer to home — in the City of Los Angeles. His research team includes Featherstone, computer scientists Viktor Prasanna and Seon Ho Kim from USC Viterbi, and USC Annenberg Innovation Lab Director Colin Maclay.

“My invitation to give a keynote address at an international conference in Fuzhou is just part of a much larger set of activities taking place at the Price School,” said Heikkila. “It’s gratifying because each activity we undertake then enhances our capacity to do the next.”