January 31, 2020 By Chelsey Delaney 4 min read

On Aug. 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of more than 130 mph. As Harvey tracked up the Texas and Louisiana coastline over the next four days, it dumped more rain on the region than it normally receives in an entire year. Approximately 135,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and the estimated cost of the storm was $125 billion.

I came to IBM because of their work in natural disaster recovery, determined to show how blockchain technology can help those impacted by events like Harvey — survivors, government agencies, private insurers, inspectors, community groups and others — respond better and faster. But as you can see in the new short film titled Bonds of Trust, I have a personal connection to Harvey as well: my parents’ home in Bayside, Texas was one of those destroyed.

Two years after the storm, thousands of area residents are still wading through tides of paperwork and a system that places the burden squarely on them to find assistance. In one of the most stressful experiences of their lives, survivors are required to go through multiple steps in a process that’s fraught with duplicative efforts, lots of waiting and lots of uncertainty about what to do and what to expect.

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What’s more, the lack of real-time visibility and tracking of various organizational operations makes it extremely challenging to coordinate current efforts and forecast better responses for future natural disasters.

Proactive planning in the face of unpredictability

Hurricane Harvey was a record-setting storm, but certainly not isolated. Shortly after Harvey, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Florida and Puerto Rico respectively, unleashing another $140 billion in damages. Natural disasters, of course, aren’t just limited to hurricanes; the very size and geographic diversity of the United States — much less our planet — leaves virtually everyone vulnerable to some kind of catastrophic event. These disasters often leave intense, lasting impacts through the cost of damages, protracted recovery times, exhausted relief efforts and diminished quality of life.

Each natural disaster comes with its own unique challenges. But their increasing frequency and severity and cost, highlights the growing importance of effectively managing and coordinating the efforts of people and organizations pressed into service to help. It also implicitly highlights the need for communities everywhere to shift from reacting to natural disasters when they happen, to proactively planning for them before they do, instilling an always-on culture of preparedness and resiliency.

In thinking about the ideal future state of disaster relief, it’s clear that people, communities and organizations must be enabled to rapidly mobilize, effectively communicate, seamlessly and flexibly coordinate efforts, and predict and plan as accurately — and as much — as possible. At the center of this future state sits the technology that could make it all happen: blockchain.

Blockchain and the future of disaster relief

In the wake of 2017’s hurricane season, IBM was one of many organizations that stepped up to offer support to the Gulf Coast and other regions impacted by severe weather. Surveying the vast array of stakeholders attempting to provide rapid and effective service — often in unintended conflict with one another — IBM saw the potential value for a blockchain solution.

Blockchain is the ideal technology to help solve longstanding challenges that arise in the wake of natural disasters. Instead of separate organizations keeping their own ledgers of actions — yielding inconsistencies when trying to coordinate efforts and rectify discrepancies — blockchain provides a single, shared and immutable version of the truth on a distributed, permissioned network.

Blockchain’s smart contracts also programmatically and automatically execute business rules that govern transactions between organizations, speeding processes and greatly reducing operational risk. The resulting platform delivers the security and privacy necessary for efficient collaboration and coordination across stakeholders.

With a grant kicking off in April 2018, IBM teamed up with the Texas OneStar Foundation and Texas A&M University to understand the disaster recovery landscape at a deeper level and to build a blockchain proof of concept (PoC). Working directly with survivors, FEMA, private insurers, inspectors, the Small Business Administration, community partners and other government officials to understand their needs and challenges, the team settled on a problem statement and specific issues to address.

Next, IBM designed and built a PoC focused to remove much of the friction that survivors face in the disaster relief process, with the goal of scaling to include public assistance stakeholders in the future.

Instead of filling out and tracking multiple applications with different organizations, survivors use the PoC to complete a single application, control the aid they’d like to apply for and access their information — all in one place. Immutable inspection reports of damage give trusted visibility into initial evaluations and progress of repairs. Organizational stakeholders are able to see how much aid has been allocated to each survivor, ensuring that assistance is distributed fairly to the people and communities needing it most while reducing the threat of fraudulent claims.

Government entities can better visualize and track assistance distribution for more accurate planning and forecasting efforts, identifying baselines and comparing localized gaps. Most importantly — since verified, trusted information is now distributed among the spectrum of stakeholders — the burden in times of crisis is more equally shared across parties, all while empowering survivors to own and govern their information.

Working together, preparing together and responding together

In responding to natural disasters, coordination of efforts is always of the highest value — yet it’s also traditionally been the weakest link. Fraud, delays in responses, inability to plan or react accordingly, inefficient resource distribution — individually and together, these challenges increasingly test the bonds of trust that hold us together as a society.

While we can’t control what future natural disasters will bring, blockchain’s inherent trust and transparency can control how we collectively prepare and respond to these challenging events.

Watch the full documentary Bonds of Trust

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