Technology and the effectiveness of humanitarian action

Technology for disaster mitigation

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.

Even in countries with less developed early warning systems, technology is already playing a key role in improving the ability of communities to become more resilient to disasters. But although the past decade has seen great advances in the development of early warning systems, a number of issues still need to be addressed, including lack of

• topical coverage of observation systems for hazard types
• technical capacity and sustainability
• data interchange standards and procedures
• open access to data
• collaborative efforts in driving early warning and forecast technologies forward.

Open data

Getting baseline risk data for communities in disaster-prone low- and middle-income countries is often very difficult. To explore new approaches to address this issue the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, in partnership with other agencies, has been piloting an effort to capture information about buildings and building types in earthquake-prone areas in Indonesia.

Another important aspect in enabling resilient societies is to make the baseline risk data publicly available – the focus of the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative; the move towards open access to data follows an increased push worldwide for increased transparency in all sectors of life.

In the international humanitarian community, NetHope, in partnership with a number of agencies and companies, launched the Open Humanitarian Alliance in May 2013, focusing on promoting transparency and information sharing.

Technology for disaster preparedness

Once a country has a good understanding of the risks it faces, the next step to strengthen resiliency is to prepare for risks. This includes creating contingency plans to save lives and property, as well as preparing response and rescue services.

One of the initial technology-related investments that many disaster-prone low- and middle-income countries have undertaken is a database of all the resources – human, technical and information – which authorities can call upon during a crisis. A good example of such a database is the India Disaster Resource Network, which contains more than 92,500 records.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs uses the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, a group of more than 250 emergency managers from around the world. The IFRC has a similar system, with in excess of 1200 emergency personnel in its Field Assessment and Coordination Team (FACT) and Emergency Response Units (ERUs) rosters.

Among humanitarians, learning and knowledge-sharing websites have replaced guide books. This change has led to a more open discussion and the involvement of a broader community of humanitarian actors. Some of the first handbooks, processes and reports written by a large set of contributors are now seen through an open, collaborative effort, rather than the more typical author, editor, reviewer process.

With the introduction of social networks, the concept of ‘communities of practice’ has also taken off.

Over the past two decades, we have seen a concentrated effort within the humanitarian community to provide training across the globe. This effort has been very resource-intensive, relying upon people taught in person at workshops and courses. More recently, online training courses, consisting of a combination of audio and visual material in conjunction with automated online testing, have emerged as a first wave of technology-supported training.

Technology for disaster response and recovery

In the immediate aftermath of disaster, humanitarian action needs to be prompt and targeted, and taking the right decisions can make the difference between life and death. Yet it is during these times that decision-makers frequently have to make uninformed decisions, most often due to lack of information.

Initial efforts in leveraging technology to improve situational awareness involved the use of geographical information systems (GIS). However, these systems were expensive and the availability of trained GIS experts was very limited. As a result, situational awareness information provided through maps was often too late to be useful.

During these early years, the ‘common operational picture’ was the holy grail of situational awareness. By bringing all the information available about the situation to a single map, all the decision-makers would make good decisions. The truth was that because of the expertise required to create these geospatial situational awareness maps, they often became overloaded or were incomplete.

In 2005, the release of Google Earth revolutionized the field of geospatial information. A few months earlier, Google released Google Maps, which other web sites could integrate. Humanitarian workers quickly started employing them to create their own situational awareness tools. Geospatial-based situational awareness tools now became available to users all around the world.

Subsequent digital volunteer efforts have shown the value of situational awareness gathering using human sensors on the ground. Immediately after Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines in December 2012, digital volunteer groups used social media to provide humanitarian organizations with an early indicator of where the damage was.

Although the aid community has emphasized the importance of good assessments, very few commonly accepted methodologies exist, and this has hampered the application of technology. The different methodologies developed by individual agencies and sectors cannot be compared easily against the results of other assessments.

A high number of mobile data collection solutions initially appeared on the market, but most organizations have built solutions around a few popular providers. For the most part, humanitarian agencies have found that these solutions have been easily adopted by staff. In most places, these mobile-based data collection systems have also been well accepted by the affected communities. But there are challenges.

In the past decade, some individual humanitarian response organizations have set up information systems to capture information about needs and response, but these systems are seldom designed to share information with other humanitarian organizations. At present, if information is shared, it is generally through PDFs and maps.

At the same time, the availability of voice and data connectivity to humanitarian organizations has improved radically. Satellite-based connectivity is commonplace in humanitarian organizations’ response kits, while the resilience and availability of mobile networks providing data services have increased dramatically. This was evident in the Japan tsunami of 2011 and Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines in 2012.

Attempts to improve information sharing and coordination of humanitarian response have focused mainly on the creation of websites and portals that are either geographical or sectoral. With the introduction of the inter-agency cluster system in 2005, lead agencies set up websites focused on their sector. Although this has improved access to information, it still requires the decision-maker to read a large number of documents.

National disaster management agencies in high-income countries have taken coordination a step further than the international humanitarian community. A number of solutions improve information sharing within emergency operation centres at either the local or the national level. These systems often include a link into the resource database mentioned earlier, and allow for resource mobilization and tracking.

The IFRC has used its Disaster Management Information System (DMIS) to coordinate efforts within the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Aid workers are now encouraged to use social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to provide an insight into the humanitarian operations. With increased availability of cheaper bandwidth, humanitarian organizations now also share images from the affected areas through social networking sites. Similarly, the availability of low-cost, high-definition video cameras has pushed organizations towards providing short video clips from the field.

Social media are now central to fund-raising in most humanitarian organizations.

Most humanitarian organizations agree that it is important to involve the affected communities more in the humanitarian response. A community-driven response also ensures that the community itself better protects those who are helping and eases security issues.

The digital age has enabled a qualitatively different model of humanitarian response. Whereas political leaders and aid agencies, often far away from an emergency, once made assumptions about the needs of people in crisis, those people now have the tools to communicate their own expectations.

Factors limiting effective use of technology in humanitarian action

A number of issues currently limit the effectiveness of technology adoption in the humanitarian context, including:

• Cost of implementing technology solutions
• Lack of trust in technologies by users
• Digital literacy
• Technology acceptance by government and humanitarian organizations
• Reaching affected communities
• Simplicity of solutions
• Incentives for participation in technology-based community solutions
• Demographic representation of the communities participating in solutions.

Drought monitoring and prediction for sub-Saharan Africa

A key element in managing drought risk in Africa is the provision of early warning of developing drought conditions and impacts. Approaches to drought monitoring in many low- and middle-income countries have generally been limited, in part because of unreliable monitoring networks and insufficient national capacity. Seasonal climate forecasts are also deficient and often reliant on statistical regressions, which cannot provide detailed information relevant for drought assessment.

However, the wealth of data from satellites, real-time telemetry and recent advancements in large-scale hydrological modelling and seasonal climate model predictions have enabled the development of state-of-the-art monitoring and prediction systems that can help address many inherent problems. Satellite remote sensing in particular is capable of overcoming differences in data availability across political boundaries that have historically hindered monitoring of regional phenomena such as drought.

Various methods for characterizing drought from satellites are based on several variables. Large-scale modelling has improved because of advances in the representation of physical processes through, for example, comparison of models, better input data and validation at various scales. The merging of satellite and model predictions of the hydrological cycle through assimilation could improve drought monitoring and observation of the hydrological cycle.

Princeton University in the US has developed an experimental drought monitoring and forecast system for sub-Saharan Africa which merges climate predictions, hydrological models and remote sensing data to provide timely and useful information. Its key elements are the provision of near real-time evaluations of the terrestrial water cycle and an assessment of drought conditions.

Given the tremendous impact of drought in Africa, where the growing population is mostly dependent on rain-fed agriculture, the implementation of this system is key to building capacity through technology and knowledge transfer.


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Chapter 4 was written by Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director at NetHope. The box was written by Justin Sheffield and Eric F. Wood, Dept. Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton.