Climate change on a global level – fastened as a result of global warming – has resulted in fundamental changes in the climate of many geographic regions, and therefore, countries. This has resulted in the extinction of many species and the change of the seasons for many parts of the world.
Also, it has meant that the world is in a flux; and what that means is that the world is changing dramatically – crashing; still; and crashing still. Storms, hurricanes, earthquakes are all inevitable in the wake of so much change.
Thus, what the world saw this last decade, with the start of the new millennium is a whole round of natural disasters. Putting Pakistan high up on the scale of an extremely-prone-to-disaster country would not be a faulty judgment. For these last 10 years has seen mammoth destruction at the hands of floods and earthquakes in the country – the recent being the 7.7 magnitude on the Richter scale earthquake on 24th September 2013 that created an entirely new island from the sheer scale.
The need to plan ahead of these natural disasters, therefore, is the need of the hour and what that entails is: preparedness; mitigation; response; recovery. It is no mistake to assume that the most intelligent being on this planet would turn to making tools, just as the first hunter-gatherer, too, discovered fire when rubbing together two stones to cook the meat he had just shot. These ‘technologies’ emerged from a need, and what is happening today in the face of such enormous threat is not any different from what the hunter gatherer came up with from his meager resources.
The following article shall touch upon the new trends that have emerged in the space of disaster management technology, first, and shall then turn to listing down all the latest technologies in use, so far; then, finally, enlisting all the known advantages and disadvantages of the disaster management technologies, lastly culminating with an emphasis on what can be done to alleviate the disadvantages, with a prelude into what is yet to come.
New trends in Disaster Management
The increased use of technology and the rapid increase of natural disasters in the world today, has dictated a marriage of the two, thus highlighting how the usage of mobile phones, computers, and software, has played an important role in the effective management of disasters.
This coupled with another trend – that being the emergence of new actors in the form of technologically savvy Digital Humanitarians – and the necessity of old actors to catch up with them, have emerged from recent times. The Digital Humanitarians sit and analyze crisis data, presenting it in a format that can be used for action. They have been used by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other humanitarian agencies.
The most significant trend, by far, that has emerged from recently-managed disasters using technology has revealed that people directly affected by disasters are empowered to change their own lives, becoming first responders of the disaster itself. This is a very consistent observation, and implies that if people struck with disaster can take charge of their own lives and inform authorities of their situation, or make a case for first aid on the touch of their fingers, implies less subsequent damage and loss of lives, for there would be instant usage of this technology from the moment of impact.
Another very significant development in the understanding of these disasters is that acquisition of information is key.
For coordination, deployment of resources, for raising of funds – it is important to know the number of affectees, the extent of damage, the strength of the hurricane/ natural disaster, the real-time coverage of the disaster, especially of far-flung areas, not accessible, but still visible on satellite.
The three most important words in the field of technology right now are: Big Crisis Data which is basically the sifting through of large amounts of data from sources such as Twitter, social media, satellite – and the conversion of it into actionable data. In recent times, the need for big crisis data has increased. For example, more than half a million pictures were posted in Instagram and 20 million Tweets were posted in Twitter during Hurricane Sandy. In Japan, Twitter users posted more than 177 Tweets a second on average and set up 500,000 new accounts the same day.
The rise of mobile usage is a glaring trend and the integration of different hardware, software and mapping platforms. These can be seen in the rise of the usage of mobile phones across the globe.
New technology Used in Disaster Management
The new technology used can be broadly categorized as human-driven: crowd-sourcing and micro-tasking; and machine- driven processes such as data mining.
Crowdsourcing is the process of “obtaining needed services, ideas, or content (e.g. data) by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers” (Merriam-Webster).
Big Data, or big data analytics is sifting through from large amounts of passively generated data such as social media and satellite and converting it into something that can be acted upon.
Crisis mapping “leverages mobile & web-based applications, participatory maps & crowd-sourced event data, aerial & satellite imagery, geospatial platforms, advanced visualization, live simulation, and computational & statistical models to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies” (Crisis Mappers).
Digital Data Collection is the process of replacing the traditional pen and paper data collection by humanitarian actors with digital technologies.
Examples of how new technology is being used in the management of disasters are plenty:
Early Warning Systems used by WFO in monitoring food to prepare in advance before calamity hits. UNESCO tries to monitor the drought in Africa and be able to forecast accurately the next time it should hit.
Google came up with a way to help the disaster-stricken refugees in Haiti by creating Google Person Finder to find out if one’s loved ones had made it ashore or not – a system developed with the aim of helping disaster management. Also, in trying to locate loved ones after a natural disaster in New Zealand, a balloon was let out in the open in order to connect people.
Another example makes use of Twitter messages to create data assessment maps to assuage how much damage had been created because of the disasters: which areas were relatively less embedded in destruction; which were more; which were critical. Also, Twitter hashtags used by the Philippine government in Typhoon Pablo were employed as early warning measures.
- Advantages of Using Technology in Disaster Management
The biggest advantage of the usage of technology in disaster management today has been the self-help empowering those affected of disasters, making them the first responders of the disaster. The benefits can be fully expressed in the following: “empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods” (UNISDR, 2006)
People are in a position to be able to fend for them, and nothing beyond that is empowering. Less time is wasted; if it is withdrawing money, or calling for help, or just learning online how to give CPR, for example, or practicing a simple amputation – these technologies are really filling in the gaps so that no longer anybody has to wait for help; help is in every one’s hands. It is no surprise that only 10% of all survival can be attributed to external help. Self organization is key in disaster-stricken situations.
This technology has created knowledge communities in which all users can give feedback, comment, and articulate their views. This creates an atmosphere of ease and flexibility. The learners can learn at their own pace even, which can make for a deep-rooted understanding of the subject at hand, therefore.
The increased usage of mobile phones is giving people – the disaster-stricken populace – a chance to voice their concerns. A simple SMS-based system can greatly alleviate the problem of lack of access due to a fallen bridge. Much can be seen in the case of Aceh, Indonesia.
Mobile phone usage is also helping in aiding learning. Wiki pages that give information about everything under the sun are an example. This novel way of extracting information makes use of construction of knowledge; designing meanings of that knowledge and creating a peer and a teacher in everybody.
It is no surprise, therefore, that across continents, web usage is the greatest on the mobile phone: Egypt (70 %) and India (59 %). In Africa, 85 % of the mobile-only web users access the internet with a ‘feature phone’, a device offering some but not all of the features of a smartphone – not to forget the recent research report by Google ascertaining how 77% of those surveyed possessed smartphones, thus making a case for Pakistan heading towards a better-equipped society with first aid on their fingertips.
Use of phones in information and technology, with particular reference to post disaster management recovery was used in Bangladesh to recover individuals trapped under the rubble at the Rana Plaza Garment Factory on the 24Th April 2013. Another episode at Tazreen Garment factory in Bangladesh as well made use of the SIM cards of the deceased in locating their loved ones to whom the compensation money could go to.
In times of internet blackouts or lack of accessibility, the usage of technology can be attributed as useless in helping us combat disaster-stricken situations.
Another fundamental disadvantage of using technology in disaster management is that the technology in disaster management is not advanced enough to convert data gathered from floods into actionable information, despite the advancements made in this field.
Also, the access to technology is unequal. Those who need it: the poor – more vulnerable to these disasters anyway – are devoid of this power.
It is difficult to predict what the future will bring. However, humanitarian agencies should never stop to innovate. A lot needs to be done in the field of technology. For example, the lack of coordination in Haiti resulted in the loss of the most number of lives. Thus, as a way to avoid this, innovation must become the norm. Most technology needs to be tested out anyway, and this can only come from experimentation.
For power black-outs better infrastructure needs to be installed, as prevention or preparedness to disasters. This can only be ensured with the installation of 3G services to better the onslaught.
With the wake of so much destruction, it can only be that the most intelligent being uses all his resources to better equip his species with tools to protect themselves – just as he did when creating the first light, back in the cave.