The World Disasters Report 2013 examines the profound impact of technological innovations on humanitarian action, how humanitarians employ technology in new and creative ways, and what risks and opportunities may emerge as a result of technological innovations.

The responsible use of technology offers concrete ways to make humanitarian assistance more effective, efficient and accountable and can, in turn, directly reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience. Finding ways for advances in technology to serve the most vulnerable is a moral imperative; a responsibility, not a choice.

    Chapter summaries

    1. Humanitarian technology
    New ICT tools for humanitarian action are proposed that can detect needs earlier and predict crises better, enabling better response and increasing accountability and transparency. Technologies offer new sources of information and early warning, and new platforms for training or raising awareness and funds.

    There are now more than 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions and over 2 billion mobile broadband internet subscriptions. Between 2008 and 2013, developing countries doubled the number of mobile phone subscription, adding 2.5 billion. There are now almost twice as many mobile broadband as fixed broadband subscriptions. Improved communication and information for communities at risk also reflect improved connectivity and social media.

    Mobile phones are now used for cash transfer, banking and even health services, and are routinely used by humanitarians.

    This is also the result of technological fusion or the integration of information networks, mobile technology hardware and applications, social media and mapping platforms into a single mobile device.
    2. Communities, communication and technology
    Despite living in Chicago, more than 6,000 miles from his native Syria, Zaher Sahloul, a doctor, has been helping to treat patients in his war-torn country. In the US, he used social media to organize medical supplies and donations worth more than US$ 5 million from the Syrian diaspora, uploaded videos in Arabic to YouTube that give advice to physicians inside Syria, and used a barcode system to track medical supplies to Syria.

    Sahloul has been able to communicate with medical personnel on the ground thanks to internet systems engineers like Dishad Othman, who works with Internews, an international NGO. Othman, a Syrian who was forced to flee, has helped to establish encryption tools and virtual private network accounts, to create secure ways for Syrians inside the country to communicate via the internet.

    The collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April 2013, is another testament to the use of information and communication technologies – here, cell phones – as a tool for post-disaster recovery. While searching through the rubble, civilian rescuer Saydia Gulrukh noticed that many of the victims died clutching identity cards and cell phones. Gulrukh says this can be tied to another factory disaster in November 2012, where a fire tore through the Tazreen garment factory, also in Dhaka, killing more than 100 people. Government estimates of the missing were low, in part because many families had no records of their loved ones, making it difficult for them to claim bodies and prove that they qualified for benefits.
    3. Strengthening humanitarian information: the role of technology
    When disaster strikes, access to information is as important as food and water. This was recognized in World Disasters Report 2005. Since then, information generated and consumed during emergencies is increasingly digital and user-generated.

    Affected populations increasingly generate a vast amount of real-time information. Humanitarian organizations are also adopting geospatial and mobile technologies such as smartphones to collect data in many formats. They typically faced an information vacuum following sudden-onset disasters, but a major challenge today is ‘big data’ produced by affected communities themselves.

    Research has shown that local communities save the most lives following a disaster. Communities themselves have always been the real first responders.

    Self-organization in a digital world affords opportunities unfeasible in the analogue past. Disaster-affected populations now have greater access to information, and many of their information needs during a crisis can be met by mobile technologies.

    Local media continue to play a critical role during crises.
    4. Technology and the effectiveness of humanitarian action
    A number of factors make early warning systems effective, and technology can play an important role in strengthening each of them.

    Advances in high-performance computing and ‘cloud’ computing have made it possible to develop more complex modelling of hydrological and seismological risk. Emergency managers have used tools that take advantage of computing technology, for example, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System, the Humanitarian Early Warning Service, UN Global Pulse and SARWeather.

    Automated monitoring and warning services allow emergency managers and others to subscribe to e-mails or texts for alerts, but also provide other systems with a standards-based warning message. The most common standard for sharing alerts is the Common Alert Protocol (CAP), which many agencies and countries have adopted.

    Low-tech specialized weather radios, sirens and public loudspeakers are rapidly joined by e-mails, SMS or twitter messages as channels for warning, arguably contributing to reducing the death toll of disasters. Google started sharing CAP-based alerts and the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has started leveraging features of the mobile network systems to start broadcasting early warning messages. More effort must go into covering the ‘last mile’ of early warning.
    5. The risks of technological innovation
    Evolving methodologies for data gathering as well as cell phones, social media, geographic information systems and global positioning systems have fundamentally altered how humanitarian crises are addressed.

    Although technological innovations will continue to transform humanitarian endeavour, much optimism currently surrounding the role of technology in the humanitarian enterprise is based on two assumptions: that adding technology is inevitable and that doing so will generate progress.

    Throughout the 1990s, accountability gained prominence as an agenda item. Humanitarian organizations began to set standards for it, and to self-regulate. The humanitarian reforms of the mid-2000s were designed to: address waste and mismanagement; strengthen the UN’s system of ‘humanitarian coordinators’; and ensure, through the use of the cluster approach, more reliable and systematic attention to response. It was assumed that making humanitarian action more accountable, transparent and efficient would also make it more legitimate.

    This narrative of renewal finds its contemporary expression in the drive towards technological innovation. But two objectives of humanitarian reform – accountability and transparency – are absent from discussions about technology. And a third, increased efficiency, is not so much discussed as presumed.
    6. Digital technology in humanitarian response: harnessing information to support best outcomes
    New technological advances now challenge many aspects of the humanitarian enterprise. The hierarchal information structure of response has been reordered with the advent of technology and lower barriers for entry into the ‘field of play’. Volunteers and private agencies are now undertaking a more direct role in managing information flows and connecting to affected populations.

    Haiti in 2010 saw the first field deployment of many technologies with the potential to support disaster assessment and response. In view of the difficulties experienced by seasoned humanitarian agencies, it raises the question whether it is prudent to test new ICTs in such a large and complex crisis. Nevertheless, the deployment occurred and now offers much opportunity to reflect on challenges and opportunities.

    The emergence of technological tools for disaster response serves not just to connect responders with existing data sources but also to augment response capabilities within and between responder organizations. The use of electronic medical records (EMR) in disaster response was reported in the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake by two field hospitals: in Fond Parisien, managed by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and the mobile field hospital set up by the Israel Defense Forces.

    The bulk of rapid cell-phone coverage (numbering 6 billion in 2012) is occurring in low- and middle-income countries, among populations most likely to be affected by disasters. Cell phones have a significant role to play in allowing better access to information for all – when and where networks are available. Once again the 2010 Haiti earthquake is the best example of such an opportunity, as it was perhaps the first large disaster affecting a very ‘connected’ population.
    7. Innovation, evaluation and diffusion of humanitarian technology
    Digital technologies have become an integral part of operations for disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. Although they have been around for three decades and are widely used, several new trends cause great excitement:
    • increases in accessibility, connectivity, usability and open-source technology
    • fusion of networks, hardware, applications, social media and mapping platforms.

    Disaster-affected communities can be engaged directly in dialogue and two-way communication, rapidly improving humanitarians’ understanding of their needs and the local context, and enabling communities to build their own response; communities are now becoming more engaged in humanitarian action than ever.

    At the same time, the rise in information and communication also provides unique abilities to coordinate humanitarian action and be more accountable to local communities; it provides unique tools to mobilize financial support and volunteer communities.

    The three key action points in successful technology deployment in humanitarian actions are innovation, evaluation and diffusion.
    The data and opinions expressed in this section do not necessarily represent the official policy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies nor of individual National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies. For further information regarding the figures, data and analysis provided, please contact the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
    According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), 364 natural disasters and 188 technological disasters were reported worldwide in 2012.

    The number of natural disasters is the second lowest of the decade, while the num- ber of technological disasters is the lowest of the decade, almost half the number for the peak year of 2005.

    The number of deaths caused by both natural and technological disasters was the lowest of the decade.

    The number of deaths caused by natural disasters (9,656) is 90 per cent below the average for the decade, much lower than the peaks of 2004 (242,010 deaths), 2008 (235,272 deaths) and 2010 (297,730 deaths).

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    Published annually since 1993, the World Disasters Report brings together the latest trends, facts and analysis of contemporary catastrophes and their effect on vulnerable populations worldwide. Initiated by the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies, it convenes eminent researchers, authors and development and humanitarian aid practitioners to highlight contemporary issues on a yearly basis.

    This year’s 21st edition is led by Patrick Vinck, Associate Faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Director of the Program for Vulnerable Populations at Harvard University, promoting evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance. The report is also supported by experienced researchers and practitioners, and anchored by an editorial board comprising key individuals and organizations that are actively engaged in and working with issues relevant to the theme.
    According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), 364 natural disasters and 188 technological disasters were reported worldwide in 2012.

    The number of natural disasters is the second lowest of the decade, while the number of technological disasters is the lowest of the decade, almost half the number for the peak year of 2005.