Digital duck crossing

Natural disaster relief technology records a successful pilot program just outside of Houston

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl (organization, whereabouts, and logistics), says the initiative marries:

  • A deployable IoT network of DuckLink devices that can quickly provide a basic WiFi setup where communications infrastructure might be down, like a region where a hurricane just hit. A single device can connect through WiFi to smartphones and laptops.
  • A software data visualization platform that speeds up and simplifies data monitoring on the Clusterduck network.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Knouse tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

"Once this network of ducks is deployed and then clustered, civilians are able to basically get on the devices through a really intuitive interface and contact first responders with a list of things that are really essential to them," Project Owl team member Magus Pereira explained in an October 2018 blog post.

Project Owl, which won IBM's Call for Code Global Challenge in 2018, is being developed by Code and Response, an IBM program that puts open source technologies in communities that most need them. Knouse and Houston software engineer Charlie Evans lead Project Owl.

In a June 6 blog post, Evans recalled the widespread damage his hometown suffered during Hurricane Harvey and stressed the importance of efforts like Project Owl.

"The sheer magnitude of storms like this," Evans writes of Hurricane Harvey, "and the fact that extreme weather isn't going anywhere anytime soon, really drive home the point that effective communication and logistics are among the highest [priorities] for organizations that are involved with rescuing people and with cleanup."

Katy was the second pilot site for Project Owl. The first large-scale test was done in March in Puerto Rico.

Members of the Project Owl team were pleased with the Katy test. Knouse says the speed of DuckLink deployment improved versus the Puerto Rico test, and the network error transmission rate fell from more than 30 percent to around 10 percent.

"This test is important for anyone who wants to see how we will support communities during natural disasters," Knouse tells InnovationMap. "The growth and improvement [seen in the Katy test] confirms that we can continue to improve the speed, scale, and performance of the network, elevating confidence that if it's deployed during a real disaster, we can support recovery and critical life saving activities."

Following the Puerto Rico and Katy pilots, Project Owl will test the technology again later this year in Puerto Rico, as well as in Alabama, California, and Washington state, according to Knouse.

"It's one thing to build something in a lab and say, 'It works.' It's another to have complete strangers watch the technology deployment and say, 'It works — we need this as soon as possible.' And we are working at maximum capacity to make that happen," Knouse wrote in May.

Owl deploys duck technology

Courtesy of Project Owl

About five of the "rubber ducks" are needed to track one square mile.

According to a new study, Houston is among the cities most vulnerable to job loss due to the recession caused by COVID-19. Getty Images

No matter whether the outlook leans more toward optimism or pessimism, Houston stands to lose a head-spinning number of jobs in the grips of a coronavirus-induced recession.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could drain as many as 44,000 jobs from the regional economy by the end of 2020. That's out of nearly 3.2 million workers in the Houston metro area.

The job figures might look "much worse" through the second and third quarters of this year, Gilmer says. However, he adds, Houston's job losses should be followed by a "quick recovery" in 2021.

A study published March 27 by personal finance website SmartAsset predicts an even greater impact on employment in Houston.

SmartAsset forecasts 56,469 full-time and part-time jobs in just the city of Houston, or nearly 5 percent of the local workforce, could be lost in a coronavirus recession. In all, more than 282,000 jobs, or 24.6 percent of the city's workforce, could be in jeopardy, according to the study.

John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, says he thinks Smart Asset's job-loss estimate is "decent" but might be too low.

In light of the federal government's extension of social-distancing guidelines to April 30 and perhaps further extensions, Diamond believes Houston will suffer "substantial" job losses in the next two to four months. After the social-distancing rules are relaxed, Diamond expects an employment bounce-back later in the year.

"The recovery could be rapid if business supply chains and networks remain intact," Diamond says, "and if oil prices rebound by the end of the year."

For his part, Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, pessimistically envisions about 300,000 people in the Houston metro area will lose their jobs, at least in the short term, due to the coronavirus recession and the recent plunge in oil prices. (By comparison, the Economic Policy Institute projects the entire state of Texas will lose 442,717 private-sector jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.)

"COVID-19 is going to be kind of a catch-all spring cleaning excuse for a lot of the oil and gas companies as they try to reduce their payroll," Hirs says.

For now, though, concerns about the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia must "take a back seat" to concerns about COVID-19, he says.

Aside from the energy industry, the escalating economic slump promises to hit several other prominent business sectors in Houston, including hospitality and manufacturing. Hirs thinks a recession could shrink Houston's 2020 economic output by 10 percent.

"This is across the board," he says, "and has the potential to be extraordinarily devastating."

ThinkWhy, a labor analysis firm, believes the impact of the COVID-outbreak on the Houston job market will be more evident in the blow it delivers to international trade than in any boost it provides to the health care sector. "But the pandemic will no doubt have an impact on both," the firm says.

It's already having a tremendous impact on small and midsize businesses in the Houston area. A March 23-28 survey by the Greater Houston Partnership found 34 percent of those businesses already had reduced their headcounts in response to the COVID-19 slowdown. And 55 percent said they're unsure whether they'll wind up carrying out permanent layoffs in the next six months.

"Houstonians like to embrace the notion that their metro was among the last to enter the Great Recession and was among the first to exit. That's not going to be the case this time," economist Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, wrote in an unvarnished

economic assessment published March 20. "All three pillars of Houston's economy — energy, global trade, and the U.S. economy — are tottering. The next 12 to 18 months will likely be very rough for Houston."