Data, Resiliency, and Waffles

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Spend any amount of time traveling through the rural United States and you are guaranteed to pass one of the hundreds of yellow signs that dot the sides of highways and byways. The sign marks the location of a Waffle House, a cheap 24-hour diner specializing in greasy food and, unsurprisingly, waffles.

Waffle Houses are the favorite haunts for Sunday churchgoers and late-night revelers looking for a bite to eat. However, the chain is also held in high regard by a very different group: disaster responders.

Why do they like these little diners? It is not the food (although that could help). Rather, it is because Waffle House is known for one other thing: never closing — not at night, not on holidays, and if at all possible, not even during disasters.

When disasters strike, Waffle House locations make a point of staying open, or reopening days even hours afterwards, no matter the conditions. No power? Waffle House has generators and a special gas-only menu. No water? Waffle House will make coffee with bottled water.

Waffle House is so well known for its resiliency that the US government’s disaster relief organization, FEMA, uses the chain as a sensor network to make post-disaster damage assessments. After disasters, like the recent devastating tornado in Oklahoma, FEMA officials will use the so-called “Waffle House Index,” calling every Waffle House location in the area to gather two pieces of data: Are they open? Are they serving a limited menu? Based on this information, they color-code each diner: red for closed, yellow for open but with a limited menu, and green for open. By mapping the data, responders can quickly establish the location and extent of the damage.

We could learn a thing or two from Waffle House. First, resiliency requires adaptation, and adaption requires data. Waffle Houses are not stocked for all disasters, rather the company carefully tracks weather and other information so when a disaster is approaching they have the situational awareness to pre-position supplies close to the danger zone. They are a real-world example of resiliency through data.

Second, we need to find more Waffle House Indexes. Just like how Waffle House uses data to be more resilient, disaster responders use Waffle Houses as data sources to gain rapid intelligence about the situation on the ground. Data used in the Waffle House Index might seem haphazard, but it is also reliable and cheap to collect. Often that is all that is needed. I know there are more Waffle House Indexes out there, more sources of good data that can help disaster responders and citizens quickly understand what is happening during and after disasters. We just need to find them, and help the world access them.

Photo credit: David Hilowitz

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