Saving Lives with Big Data

(photo: istockphoto)

True story: On a summer day in 2009, a railway company identified a section of train track washed away by a flash flood near Rockford, Illinois, in the Midwestern United States. A train carrying highly-flammable liquid ethanol sped toward the washout.

The railroad had an emergency process in place, and it would be nearly an hour before the train reached the affected area. Disaster averted, right?


Communications and other protocols failed, and the message of danger got to the train operators too late. The train hit the washout, derailing 19 cars at a highway crossing. Thirteen of the derailed tank cars were breached, or leaked their contents and caught fire. The fire spread to several cars stopped at the crossing waiting for the train to pass. A passenger in one of those cars burned to death. Another, pregnant, was also seriously injured and lost her baby. In total, one person was killed and seven were injured in the accident.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed the railway, saying the company was too slow to communicate the danger to its train crew. In a settlement, the company paid victims and their families nearly US$70 million in damages. “There were multiple points where this catastrophe could have been averted, but it was not,” according to NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

Saving lives by hastening emergency response is the aim of a new solution from SAP released in May 2012. SAP Situational Awareness for the public sector is a new SAP Rapid Deployment Solution that harnesses the capabilities of three powerful SAP solutions – SAP HANA, the Sybase Unwired Platform, and SAP Event Insight – to help public safety and security organizations better anticipate, assess, and act on emergency situations.

The offering is part of SAP’s Urban Matters Initiative, an effort to build solutions that improve the lives of urban dwellers.  “Fifty percent of the world’s population is concentrated in mega-cities, cities and urban corridors,” says Sean Patrick O’Brien, global VP for Urban Management & Public Security at SAP. “Eighty percent of the world’s GDP passes through these regions each day. So it’s quite obvious that SAP’s goal of making the world ‘run like never before’ includes addressing the urban context.”

What is Situational Awareness?

Serb Jodha, head of consulting for Bluefin Solutions, an SAP partner, explains: “Situational Awareness is the ability to understand your environment in the context of how information, events and actions will impact an ultimate goal or objective now or in the future.”

“In many industries [including] public services…achieving this situational awareness is required in mere seconds and anything more can have far reaching impacts,” Jodha continues. “The inability to comprehend high levels of information and/or complex scenarios can lead to poor decision making.”

Police and first responders, for example, must be ready to make life and death decisions at any given moment. Solutions like SAP Situational Awareness for public  sector with SAP HANA help ensure that the individuals and agencies responsible for public services and safety have timely access to the best information to sense, predict and act in real time.

When Seconds Save Lives, Speed Matters

Emergency response comprises an intricate mix of protocol, process, and communication, while lives depend on swift, decisive action. A delay of even a few minutes in receiving notifications and information hinders the ability of responders to identify and assess emergency situations. Built using SAP HANA in-memory technology, SAP Situational Awareness for the public sector can help eliminate those delays to accelerate action.

While the term “real time” is commonly used to describe situational response software, the industry generally accepts that to mean emergency data is refreshed only every 15, 20, or even 30 minutes.  SAP Situational Awareness for Public Sector is turning that notion on its head with the concept of ‘real, real time.’ Responders get information about what’s really happening at that moment and allows communication like never before.

SAP HANA in-memory technology has the ability to process an extremely large amount of data – millions of lines – so fast that humans can barely perceive the delay.  According to Andrew Cabanski-Dunning, a member of the SAP HANA team, customers are reporting a 100,000-times improvement in process speed with SAP HANA.

“In layperson’s terms,” Cabanski-Dunning explains, “a 100,000 times  increase is like flying from New York to Paris in 0.28 seconds, San Francisco to Sydney in 0.52 seconds, Tokyo to Hawaii in 0.23 seconds and all the way around Earth, twice, in less than 3 seconds.”

This pioneering project represents the first time SAP HANA was used to power public security data. SAP used the NIEM data standard for integrating information from government agencies with complex-event processing tools such as SAP Event Insight and applied the Sybase Unwired Platform to deploy mobile applications. “SAP HANA is able to accommodate massive amounts of incoming public safety data and key events can be analyzed to better identify risks, threats and consequences,” explains O’Brien. “The Sybase Unwired Platform delivers this information to police officers and first responders on the ground, helping them to better anticipate and respond to rapidly evolving situations on mobile devices.”

The Technology of Tomorrow, Today 

In situational response, ‘events’ in a system don’t always trigger a simple cue to routine action. Emergency and catastrophe situations can be immensely complicated, as are the means and measures used to deal with them.

With SAP Situational Awareness for public sector, developers bring advanced technology to the arsenal of tools available to deal with future public safety emergencies. The solution combines event management tools with HANA and mobility technology: SAP Event Insight allows real-time monitoring of incidents (fires, burglaries, floods, flu pandemics, etc.). SAP HANA provides processing speeds of nearly 100 gigabytes per second. SAP’s Sybase Unwired Platform provides GPS services, maps, and device-to-device technology connecting disaster management centers to emergency respondents in the field.

SAP Situational Awareness for Public Sector with SAP HANA supports the simple and the complex, including divergence between real-time disaster and real-time disaster information (lack of timely threat awareness); time-critical decisions in a quickly changing situation; vast amounts of information accumulating rapidly; institutional autonomy of mission partners supported by collaboration and information exchange to enable time sensitive decisions; behavioral changes introduced through social networking sites; detection of mission critical alerts, and very high availability.

SAP Situational Awareness for public sector is packaged as an SAP Rapid Deployment solution including public safety-specific best-practices content with a fixed-cost, fixed-scope, fixed-schedule deployment that can be completed in a matter of weeks.

“SAP Real-Time Situational Awareness rapid-deployment solution powered by SAP HANA has created new possibilities for increasing awareness and more importantly response time towards the correct action required,” says Jodha of Bluefin. “Furthermore, leveraging SAP Event Insight and the proven Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP), such critical decision making is available in the hands of the individual on mobile devices at the point of need.  Combined with industry specific content for use by governmental public safety entities allows for rapid deployment and adoption of real-time intelligence.”