This High-Tech Solution to Disaster Response May Be Too Good to Be True

Sheri Fink in The New York Times: “The company called One Concern has all the characteristics of a buzzy and promising Silicon Valley start-up: young founders from Stanford, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital and a board with prominent names.

Its particular niche is disaster response. And it markets a way to use artificial intelligence to address one of the most vexing issues facing emergency responders in disasters: figuring out where people need help in time to save them.

That promise to bring new smarts and resources to an anachronistic field has generated excitement. Arizona, Pennsylvania and the World Bank have entered into contracts with One Concern over the past year. New York City and San Jose, Calif., are in talks with the company. And a Japanese city recently became One Concern’s first overseas client.

But when T.J. McDonald, who works for Seattle’s office of emergency management, reviewed a simulated earthquake on the company’s damage prediction platform, he spotted problems. A popular big-box store was grayed out on the web-based map, meaning there was no analysis of the conditions there, and shoppers and workers who might be in danger would not receive immediate help if rescuers relied on One Concern’s results.

“If that Costco collapses in the middle of the day, there’s going to be a lot of people who are hurt,” he said.

The error? The simulation, the company acknowledged, missed many commercial areas because damage calculations relied largely on residential census data.

One Concern has marketed its products as lifesaving tools for emergency responders after earthquakes, floods and, soon, wildfires. But interviews and documents show the company has often exaggerated its tools’ abilities and has kept outside experts from reviewing its methodology. In addition, some product features are available elsewhere at no charge, and data-hungry insurance companies — whose interests can diverge from those of emergency workers — are among One Concern’s biggest investors and customers.

Some critics even suggest that shortcomings in One Concern’s approach could jeopardize lives….(More)”.