Western Washington city uses artificial intelligence to predict who needs help in disaster

REDMOND, Wash. — A Western Washington city is one of the first in the country to use artificial intelligence to better protect people in the event of a disaster.

The Hanukkah Eve windstorm of 2006 left 1.8 million people without power, and 18 people died, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of using barbecues and generators indoors.

Mayor John Marchione, a Redmond native, remembers it well.

"That's poisonous and dangerous but, with language barriers and such, the information was prevented from being spread to the communities,” Marchione said.

He never would have imagined that, 12 years later, those barriers would be broken by artificial intelligence.

“It is one of those great tools where you have layers and layers of data and we know how to apply the data for the community,” Pattijean Hooper, Redmond’s emergency manger, said.

Redmond is one of just a few entities nationwide using the Geospiza software platform. Hooper discovered the technology and is showing other city officials how to use it.

Geospiza gathers public data to show Hooper, on a map, where the city's most vulnerable people, including non-English speakers and those with disabilities, live.

Then, in the event of a disaster, it helps Hooper and her team determine the best way to communicate with those people.

Some of the most vulnerable have no idea they fall into that category.

For example, you may not consider yourself to be visually impaired if you are unable to read without your glasses. But you could easily forget your glasses during a hurried evacuation.

“(Geospiza) tells us who self-identifies as disabled right now but it also indicates gray areas,” Hoooper said.

Geospiza predicts how populations best communicate -- whether by sight, sound or touch. It can't keep you from lighting a grill in your garage during a power outage, but it may help the city of Redmond find and help you before you do.

“This helps us know which relationships to establish,” Hooper said.  “It helps us locate where things are physically in a community and then the responsibility comes on us to go out and establish relationships with that community because the technology doesn't establish the relationship, it points out the need."

The city is trying the software for 90 days at a cost of $2,000.

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