The Smart Map Using Open Data to Prevent Fire Tragedies

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The single most important tool for preventing fire deaths, unsurprisingly, is a smoke alarm, but an estimated 4.5 million of the 130 million housing units across the United States do not have one.

Enigma, a New York based startup, is trying to change that through the power of open data. The company just released a search engine that will help pinpoint which homes do not have smoke alarms and allow state organizations and NGOs target outreach programs accordingly.

The project, called Smoke Signals, was created after a fire in New Orleans took the lives of five people in November of last year. Working with the city and culling information from census data, Enigma built a way to better target those at risk.

“In New Orleans, they wanted to identify how they could do a better job,” co-founder Marc DaCosta said. “They had resources available to them to give away smoke alarms but they kind of had this problem of where do we start? What’s the first door we go to knock on?”

On Thursday, Enigma expanded the search engine to major cities across the US. It works by combining two US Census datasets: the American Housing Survey (AHS), which asks specific questions about the home like ‘Do you have a smoke detector?’ but normalized the statistics and answers on a broad, sometimes city-wide scale; and the American Community Survey (ACS), a more high-resolution demographic survey. By combining these data sets with an open source geocoder, they were able to create the searchable map and predict which homes were likely to answer “no” on the smoke detector AHS survey question.

DaCosta said the crux of the project is making community outreach more efficient. Often smoke alarm distribution programs are limited to efforts like setting up outreach tables in public places or relying on the intuition of local fire departments.

“At the high level, what is exciting about this is that cities have lots of different problems like this where there is so much you can do by just looking at the data,” he said. “What we are trying to do with Smoke Signal is look at one problem and be really transparent about it, and show our methodology, and show how you can make better decisions with data.”

Enigma is working with nonprofit data science organization DataKind to make improvements on the current model and with the Red Cross in outreach efforts like the actual distribution of smoke detectors. DaCosta said with an endeavor like this, even a small amount of progress makes a big difference.

“There are 25,000 people a year who are killed or injured by fires, and if you have a smarter campaigns, you might be able to drive that down even 5 percent or 10 percent, and that can have a really big impact,” he said.

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