AWS Public Sector Blog

Lessons in disaster response

Disaster response; photo courtesy CDCPhoto courtesy CDC via Unsplash

At Amazon, we are committed to providing immediate relief and response to global communities impacted by natural disasters. The Amazon Web Services (AWS) Disaster Response team plays an important role in this response, and the team has supported customers worldwide in the wake of hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and disease outbreaks including COVID-19. We help by bringing our operational and logistics expertise, as well as cloud technology to support our customers and our communities when and where they need it most, working closely with organizations like the American Red Cross.

We’re only in June, but already 2020 has felt like a very full year. Looking back over the past several months to the pandemic, the Australia bush fires, and now thinking about the start of hurricane season, here are five areas where we have seen the nature of disaster response evolving. The ideas and innovations are ones that we think will have staying power through future crises, too.

Distancing doesn’t mean disengagement: Find new ways to engage volunteers and keep communities connected

Social distancing has been one of the defining characteristics of this pandemic. This has spurred new ways to create a sense of connectivity and community in various areas, including volunteerism.

The nonprofit consortium Volunteer Surge is tackling the strain on the US healthcare system by standing up a program to train volunteers to help doctors and nurses deliver much-needed care during the COVID‑19 pandemic. This effort has been focused on training and deploying one million volunteer health workers across the US. To become trained, volunteers complete an approximately 30-hour, fully online Community Health Worker Course developed by Cinematic Health Education in consultation with the Yale School of Public Health. AWS is powering the virtual learning platform to train volunteers before they head into the field.

We also saw initiatives like One World: Together At Home, a charity concert benefiting healthcare workers, take place in April and bring people together from around the world. This was organized with the nonprofit Global Citizen, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations with support from Amazon.

Reevaluate your digital front door

One thing that I’ve seen that’s different from other disasters is how distancing has spurred businesses and governments to reevaluate their digital front doors. We’ve seen a big leap forward in areas like telemedicine and critical government services. In Canada, OTN, a nonprofit organization providing telehealth programs throughout Ontario province, is scaling its video services to accommodate a four thousand percent spike in demand. This allows every citizen to have easy access to healthcare where and when they need it. London-based startup Babylon Health provides teleconsultations for patients in the UK and uses AI-based systems to assess known symptoms and risk factors to provide informed, up-to-date medical information. Read about other ways AWS is keeping organizations running during the pandemic.

Continuing innovation and finding flexibility with cloud technology

We have seen a lot of innovation throughout this crisis to keep classes, business, and cities running. To address the effects of COVID-19, government, education, and nonprofits are leveraging the flexibility and scalability of the cloud to adapt their services—and we have been working to help those efforts.

For example, in Italy, the City of Cagliari worked with AWS to enable nearly 500 city employees to work from home during the national quarantine. The city government is combining Amazon WorkSpaces with a connection from Cagliari’s datacenter on an encrypted VPN channel so that remote workers can keep important municipal functions up and running.

In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District is using AWS to power a new call center that is fielding IT questions, providing remote support, and enabling staff to answer calls around remote learning for 700,000 students.

Hear directly from LAUSD in this Fix This podcast episode on how they have adapted to remote learning.

Find strength in numbers through the power of partnership

Disaster response is too big of a task for any one organization to tackle alone. Collaborations and partnerships are critical for recovery, and we’ve seen many examples of this during the pandemic. The COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition is a private-sector led response to COVID-19 that brings together healthcare organizations, technology firms, nonprofits, academia, and startups to preserve the healthcare delivery system and help protect US populations. AWS is a member of this coalition, working side by side with leading healthcare providers and researchers such as the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and ZocDoc. Together, we’re coordinating our collective expertise, capabilities, and data to provide insights to improve clinical outcomes.

These collaborations are important to bring together the resources and talent to address different challenges and work collaboratively to find cures and solutions to the world’s most pressing issues.

Other recent collaborations include the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, providing computing resources to advance research on diagnosis, treatment, and vaccines. And through the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative, we are committing $20 million to accelerate diagnostic research and innovation to speed our collective understanding and detection of COVID-19—supporting customers like the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and more.

Preparation is key

Recently, we’ve engaged with many customers who want to discuss how they can build more resilience into their organizations as a result of their own learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic. We encourage customers to document these learnings, and identify gaps and opportunities to respond faster in the next crises. One common lesson learned is the better you prepare, the faster you’ll be able to respond.

With hurricane season around the corner, I sat down with Linda Mathes of the American Red Cross of the National Capital & Greater Chesapeake Region to discuss what we have learned from preparing for disasters. This timely discussion addressed how we have prepared for natural disasters, the current pandemic, and more. Watch this Washingtonian magazine panel discussion hosted by the AWS Institute.

Learn more about AWS’s initiatives and response to COVID-19, and hear from other AWS experts on how technology can help public sector organizations continually deliver on their missions.