UCI was one of 11 disaster resiliency teams across the U.S. to receive funding on Sept. 21, 2021, as part of the Civic Innovation Challenge, a program led by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). UCI is receiving $1 million in funding for the multidisciplinary CareDEX project: Enabling Disaster Resilience in Aging Communities via a Secure Data Exchange.
Led by Computer Science Professor Nalini Venkatasubramanian of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), the CareDEX project aims to enhance the resilience of older adults during disasters. The proposed data-exchange platform will make it easier for caregivers at senior housing facilities to share real-time critical care information with authorized responders.
The Civic Innovation Challenge
The Civic Innovation Challenge is a research and action competition launched in April 2020 with funding from NSF, DOE and DHS. Teams of academic and civic partners competed for awards of up to $1 million to support the rapid implementation of community-driven, research-based pilot projects that address mobility and resilience priorities. In early 2021, 52 teams were given Stage 1 planning awards, and Venkatasubramanian received funding for the initial CareDEX proposal. Working closely with her ICS colleagues, Computer Science Professors Nikil Dutt and Sharad Mehrotra, the team collaborated with Lisa Gibbs, Chief of Geriatric Medicine at UCI, and Julie Rousseau, an Associate Clinical Professor in the UCI School of Nursing and also a project scientist with the UCI School of Medicine.
CareDEX was among the projects to receive a Stage 2 award. “This award is an important acknowledgement of the need to protect all older adults from disasters, especially those in congregate living along with their caregivers,” says Gibbs. “We are thrilled to be working with our UCI campus partners and alongside Dr. Venkatasubramanian’s team of researchers.”
The continued funding was awarded “to teams comprising civic partners such as local, state, and tribal officials and non-profit and community leaders to conduct and evaluate ready-to-implement pilot projects that address community-identified challenges.” The CareDEX project involves creating a prototype platform working in close collaboration with Front Porch, a nationwide senior-care provider. The prototype will be deployed at the Walnut Village senior health facility in Anaheim.
“UCI’s proposed CareDEX project touches on many important issues [and] would contribute valuable information on how we can keep our community, and especially older residents, safe in challenging situations,” said U.S. House Representative Katie Porter in a letter of support. “The work by Professor Venkatasubramanian and her team on creating resilient communities and providing improved situational awareness in disaster events addresses important concerns that I hear throughout Orange County.”
Vulnerable during Disasters
The CareDEX project abstract highlights the fact that “when disasters strike, the elderly die,” backing up the claim with statistics from hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and heatwaves around the world. For example, in 2005, 75% of the deaths that occurred after Hurricane Katrina were people over the age of 60. Furthermore, 80% of COVID-19 deaths are people over 65, and at least 49% of all deaths are from eldercare facilities.
“With the growing older adult population in the U.S., combined with the predicted increase in natural disasters such as wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and including pandemics, geriatric mortality is certain to escalate in the years to come,” says Gibbs in a video about the project. “The time to plan to build disaster resilience is now.”
In fact, it was a news report from 2017 showing heart-wrenching images of residents at an assisted living community in Texas during Hurricane Harvey that first motivated the CareDEX project. “They are sitting in waist-deep water, and one of the residents is knitting,” says Venkatasubramanian. “This is what got me originally thinking about how older adults in disasters are so vulnerable.” COVID has since complicated matters, particularly for residents at memory care facilities at risk of evacuation during the recent California wildfires.
Yet it’s often not the disaster itself that leads to death. “The fatalities are often tied to what happens afterwards — the lack of timely care for individuals in need of dialysis or medication or the lack of power for oxygen-dependent patients,” says Venkatasubramanian. “You don’t want to put people further in harm’s way.”
The CareDEX Pilot Project
This is where using technology to build smart senior homes and facilities comes into play. CareDEX will be an information-sharing platform designed specifically for senior housing facilities. “We’re designing technology that can be used on a regular basis but also can morph to provide situational awareness during an event,” says Venkatasubramanian. Focusing on privacy and security concerns, the platform will balance the need for individual privacy through pre-authorized plans for the secure release of critical information to first responders in an emergency. The industry partner ImageCat Inc., a risk management innovation company in Long Beach, will help address regional aspects of a disaster, such as power availability at evacuation destinations and road accessibility.
“Creating and deploying platforms that are operational and used on a regular basis at actual facilities needs a tighter level of engagement with our civic partners,” says Venkatasubramanian. “It goes beyond demonstrating technology feasibility and value.” So in addition to working with Front Porch and ImageCat, the CareDEX team is collaborating with disaster experts, such as the Fire Protection Research Foundation of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 9.
Working with these partners, the team will identify what information is useful in a given context and how the data can be readily transferred and presented. “Resiliency is all about planning,” explains Venkatasubramanian. “By creating information preparedness and building channels of information flow to address gaps, we can transform the dire outcomes for our older adults, and that is the goal of the CareDEX project.”