Preventing government data failures

February 20, 2018

Governments too often ignore data, and fail badly. Citizens must take more responsibility.

Justhy Deva Prasad

A primary reason governments exist is to protect their citizens from dangerous threats – foreign, domestic and natural. People can play important roles in this arena, but most lack the resources, funds, legal authority or political power to act on their own.

In recent years, government roles have become even more dominant and pervasive. On environmental or other grounds, federal, state and even local bodies have steadily taken responsibilities from the private sector, and even prohibited citizens from taking steps to protect their lives and property, such as constructing seawalls to block storm surges or thinning out trees to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

Under these circumstances, it is essential that governments do their jobs right: by implementing informed policies, gathering and utilizing data about potential risks, making wise decisions in time to safeguard property and lives, and not letting special interests delay or obstruct those decisions.

Modern technologies greatly facilitate all these tasks, if they are employed properly. They make existing data readily available, and make it easy and affordable to acquire vital missing information. However, governments have too frequently failed in these obligations, often spectacularly.

These examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and a call for governments to do much better.

Fukushima. Everyone – legislators, regulators, utilities and citizens – knows Japan is in an earthquake and tsunami zone. And yet they permitted insufficient seawalls around nuclear power plants and, even worse, emergency generators in basements, where they would be flooded and rendered inoperable. The resultant reactor meltdowns, power outages and radiation contamination were certainly predictable.

Why didn’t Japanese government officials utilize readily available data to prevent this catastrophe?

Superstorm Sandy. City planners, leaders and builders had ample data about previous storms. They knew a direct hurricane hit would have devastating consequences for the New York City region. Yet they narrowed rivers, so that storm surges could go in only one direction: up. They required backup electrical generators, but put them in basements, where they would be flooded and rendered inoperable.

They provided no indicators along streets to show how high waters would rise with specified storm surges, leaving citizens unaware of the dangers they faced. Their warnings were late, inadequate and misleading. People did not evacuate or move treasured belongings in time. Over one hundred died.

After hundreds of U.S. hurricanes, how could governments here and elsewhere be so derelict?

California wildfires. The Golden State has battled droughts, high winds and wildfires for 150 years. But in recent decades, it has succumbed to environmentalist pressure not to thin out forests or allow private communities to remove brush and dead trees, even as more and more homes have been built in or near forested areas, and even as massive conflagrations devastated homes, businesses and wildlife habitats.

The U.S. Forest Service says California has 129 million dead trees, mostly from droughts and pine bark beetles – perfect tinder for enormous fires. Governments even permit or require (or let homeowner associations do so) cedar shake roofs and other flammable materials for homes in fire-prone areas.

They have failed to stockpile sufficient water and fire suppressants or have sufficient aircraft; they have even decreed that fires can be battled only if started by humans, but not by lightning (as if that can be determined amid a conflagration). Again the results are totally predictable. Yet the policies continue.

The 2017 wildfires incinerated some 1.2 million acres of forest habitat – as much land as in Delaware – destroyed 8,400 homes, forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, often at a moment’s notice, with the clothes on their backs, threatened cities like Beverly Hills, cost billions in damages, and killed 43 people. Rain-soaked, barren hillsides then unleash mudslides that destroy more property and kill more people.

Oroville Dam. The tallest dam in the United States, this now 50-year-old dam employs a concrete spillway and a backup earthen spillway to discharge excess water buildup during rainy periods, so that the dam doesn’t fail. In 2005, environmental groups raised concerns that the spillways could erode during heavy winter rains and cause massive downstream flooding – and deaths. Federal and state officials rejected their advice, saying everything was fine. Tests for concrete cracking apparently were never done.

Inspectors could have used side scanning radar to detect cavities beneath the concrete, but instead relied on occasional visual inspections from a distance. The last such state inspection was in 2015. Amid historic storms in late 2017, the concrete spillway collapsed into a large, undetected cavern beneath it. Officials ordered 188,000 people living in communities below the dam to evacuate. Luckily no one died.

Rarely, if ever, are the responsible, incompetent, malfeasant, derelict authorities singled out, punished, fined, fired, or even reprimanded or identified publicly when governments fail so spectacularly.

Rarely, if ever, do governments offer compensation to affected families, business owners and employees for lost paychecks, gross inconveniences … or even the total loss of businesses, inventories, homes, cars, precious and irreplaceable keepsakes, life savings, livelihoods, or very lives – as though many of those losses could ever really be compensated. Anything not covered by insurance is just gone.

Except in the case of Fukushima, government officials tried to deflect blame for the above failures by saying the disasters were caused or worsened by “climate change.” It’s an absurd, indefensible excuse.

Separating human from natural factors in changing weather and climate is impossible. Far more relevant and important, neither human nor natural climate or weather changes can excuse government officials from failing to acquire and analyze readily available or obtainable data – and then failing to use that information to develop sound policies, laws and regulations, and make timely, informed decisions that safeguard people’s property and lives.

Climate change does not prevent or outlaw thinning out forests, putting emergency generators above likely flood levels, inspecting and maintaining spillways, or taking other steps to minimize disasters. Neither do other excuses often offered up by government officials to absolve their action or inaction.

Legislators, regulators and judges cannot escape accountability by claiming their hands were tied by environmental, builder, business or other groups that did not want government officials to disrupt their accustomed ways of doing things. They cannot escape their own culpability by saying California, New York, the United States and other countries worldwide should spend tens of trillions of dollars attempting to control Earth’s climate – but then fail to spend mere millions on practical steps that would prevent cataclysmic losses from fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, volcanoes and other natural disasters.

They cannot say, “We take full responsibility” for missteps – when they rarely or never do so.

There are billions of people on our planet. Hundreds of millions live along seacoasts, next to forests or in other areas threatened by recurrent natural horrors.

Modern data technologies enable governments to formulate policies and rules that can predict many natural disasters, and prevent or minimize their worst consequences. Other modern technologies enable government officials, citizen groups, businesses and families to build disaster-resistant structures that can save property and lives. But those technologies are worthless if they are not used.

What can be done? Legislators, regulators, judges and even special interest groups should utilize data to develop and implement more informed, responsible laws and policies – that put people first instead of last (or dead last). Insurance companies and homeowner associations should assess threats and take commonsense steps to minimize them. Citizens should elect better representatives – or failing that, take personal steps within the law to better protect their property and families. It all starts with data.

Justhy Deva Prasad is a speaker, business strategy adviser, chief data partner at Claritysquare, and author of The Billion Dollar Byte: Turn big data into good profits, the DATApreneur way, which was a finalist in the 2017 American Book Festival.