Dan Prieto at the Reform Institute had an interesting op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle last Friday, suggesting the need for innovative, out-of-the-box thinking in the nation’s preparedness and response capabilities:
Disaster response is complex. It involves a dizzying array of players, from federal to state and local governments, to the private sector, to citizens and nonprofit organizations. According to the homeland security report, the “Achilles’ heel” of our national preparedness is the ability, among all those players, to identify critical supplies and resources before a disaster strikes and finding and delivering them quickly afterward.
Everyday technology, properly harnessed, can help address some of the most glaring deficiencies identified by the study. EBay became a huge success by matching specialized wants and needs: Bottle-cap collector in Iowa, meet bottle-cap seller in Texas. Craigslist succeeded by matching buyers and sellers in the same city. Sites such as Match.com couple the tastes and desires of singles, and DonorsChoose.org matches private giving with the specific needs of classrooms.
….Building an eBay-like system to match regional disaster-response needs with companies that can pledge assistance ahead of time or help out in real time would save dollars and lives. Properly built and maintained, it would ensure that the vast majority of private pledges and donations are put to good use, instead of going unused. It would allow state, local and federal governments to inventory available critical assets rapidly and would be much faster than relying on government bureaucrats to create a resource database on their own. Such a system would effectively harness the enormous, but untapped, goodwill of the private sector to play a leading role in homeland security.
I don’t know know if eBay is the best example, but I agree that systems that facilitate self-organization in disaster response are needed – and are certainly much more agile than hierarchical, command-and-control systems for disaster response.
One additional question that the op-ed provokes is whether the federal government should operate such systems, or leave them to the market to develop. If the former route is taken, then there’s a risk that systems will be overly complex or rigid. If the latter route is chosen, there’s a high probability that no single system will emerge – and you won’t develop the benefits of scope & scale that online markets like Craigslist and eBay are able to leverage. Perhaps the right route is for DHS to fund the start-up of these types of online marketplaces, and champion them, but then leave their ownership and operation to the private sector.