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What Location Data Shows About The State Of Hurricane Recovery

"Businesses can also partner with ISPs to identify and understand the most affected areas and help those areas build more reliable infrastructure to minimize future impact of similar weather events," says Rich Sutton, VP of Geospatial, Skyhook

As of this writing, it’s been 39 days since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and 80 percent of the island is still without power.

During September and October’s string of devastating hurricanes affecting Puerto Rico, Houston, Tx., and southern Florida, businesses like Home Depot were able to alert local employees and customers using location signals to inform them about which stores were open and when, along with other vital information designed to provide some small degree of relief during a difficult time.

Skyhook, which runs a global database that contains the approximate geolocations of billions of access points and hundreds of millions of cell towers, was interested in understanding the impact that Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico’s power grid and wireless internet infrastructure. It looked at wi-fi and cell tower signals detected from various available data streams on Puerto Rico in the four days leading up to the storm for mobile device activity as well as during the arrival and duration of the storm.

“The value of location data is boundless and the benefit of this analysis is that this large data stream can be filtered to expose particular parts of infrastructure and the economy, such as which stores open first after the storm (i.e. Walmart vs. Sears), which neighborhoods have gotten their broadband service back since the storm, whether or not cell service is being restored outside of urban areas,” Skyhook said in a blog post.

We followed up with Rich Sutton, VP of Geospatial at Skyhook to discuss the value that location signals can bring to the table when it comes to helping businesses provide hurricane preparedness and aiding in recovery efforts.

GeoMarketing: While places like Puerto Rico continue to struggle without power for 80 percent of the island, how did the signals from Houston and Florida fare? How much interruption was there in those places?

Rich Sutton: Predictably, in flooded areas where there was loss of electricity due to the hurricane we measured when the electricity came back on after each storm. Within a week, Houston was fully restored and Florida didn’t get hit too bad since outages were a lot less than originally anticipated.

In addition to being able to show how power came back on in those areas, we can also infer details like where specific hardware was damaged and had to be replaced (i.e., if a pre-storm device disappeared and one with new wi-fi identification appeared after power reactivation   then we can  surmise that the original was destroyed in the storm).

What should businesses — such as retail, car dealerships, restaurants, supermarkets and hospitality — be doing in terms of using location data to help reconnect with customers?

Using Skyhook’s specific map that we put together, businesses can use that location data to help reconnect with customers by opening up their communication networks for free in the event of such large-scale catastrophes as hurricanes, so that customers can use their networks for personal outreach. With the help of location data, businesses have the ability to serve as a resource for their customers during a natural disaster or other state of emergency. The caveat here though is that if i-i is down in a general area, then more often than not, businesses in that area are also without wi-fi.

What’s the best way for businesses to use location signals to reach consumers amid recovery?

If businesses do have wi-fi and are able to message locally,  they can target specific locations (as power returns to those areas) and let their customers know that they have essential relief items available – whether that be gas, groceries, emergency supplies, home goods or other every day necessities that customers went without during the natural disaster and need to replace or replenish.

Businesses can also partner with ISPs to identify and understand the most affected areas and help those areas build more reliable infrastructure to minimize future impact of similar weather events.