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.

Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, also has a strong representation of minority-owned startups. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

While Houston's population is considered diverse, the breakdown of startup founders doesn't necessarily follow suite. However, according to a new report, the city of Houston has among the highest percentage of minority-owned startups in the United States.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs, Volusion published a report naming the 15 cities with the most minority-owned startups, and the Houston, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land market ranked at No. 13. The city has 35.4 of its startups (3,697 startups) owned by minorities. While this percentage is enough to secure placement on the list, Houston's actual minority population is 62.8 percent, so the Bayou City still has room to close the gap.

According to Volusion's study, 15,673 people work at Houston's minority-owned startups and the gross sales of these companies ranges from $1 billion to less than $5 billion. The top industry for minority-owned startups is accommodation and food services.

"One of the major resources for minority business owners is the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, which offers a Business Readiness Training Program to help new entrepreneurs develop their skills," the report reads. "Although Houston is well-known for its petroleum and technology industries, minority-owned businesses are most active in accommodation and food services."

The Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington market ranks immediately ahead of Houston at No. 12 with the slightest edge of a fraction of a percentage. Dallas startups are 35.5 percent minority owned, making up 4,357 startups with 23,992 employees. Meanwhile, San Antonio and New Branfels slides into the No. 6 spot on the list with 45 percent of its startups (1,534 companies) being minority owned and employing 4,160.

Five of the top 15 companies on this list are in California, and the top three markets are all in California: No. 1 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, No. 2 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, and No. 3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim. Each of the top three boast around 50 percent of their startups being minority owned.

According to Volusion's report, the national trend is disproprotionate when you compare the markets' population diversity to its minority-owned startups. Chart via Volusion

All of the Texas markets have a higher percentage of minority-owned startups compared to the national average, which is 27.4 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 40 percent of the country's population identifies as nonwhite, and some estimates, predict the U.S. will be considered a "majority-minority" country by 2044.

According to Volusion, some of the aspects that are holding back these types of companies include lack of resources and access to capital.

"In fact, a recent survey by Morgan Stanley found that while eight out of 10 investors perceive the funding landscape as balanced, investments in minority and women-owned ventures fall short by as much as 80 percent," reads the report. "The researchers cite increased risk perception, as well as lack of access and familiarity with minority and women-led businesses as key drivers of what they coin The Trillion-Dollar Blind Spot."

According to another report, money isn't the city's biggest issue. Houston was named as an affordable city for startups in a national report last month.

In April, Houston was named as the most diverse city in the nation, and earlier this month, a report found that diversity was well represented in Houston's STEM industries.