Category Archives: Disasters & Humanitarian Response

FEWS NET: A Famine Early Warning System

Ever since the Indian Ocean tsunami in December of 2004, there has been a push for early warning systems of all types. One system in place even before this natural disaster is FEWS NET, or Famine Early Warning System Network. According to their website, FEWS NET was developed in 1985 by USAID. They saw a need for an early warning system to detect food insecurity after famines in East and West Africa. Now, FEWS NET allows agencies to plan for and respond to food insecurity disasters.

Check out this video about FEWS NET. Jim Verdin from USGS says that FEWS NET is “an activity that boils down to simply paying attention”. He further explains that FEWS NET is in place to ensure that devastating famine no longer occurs in the developing world.

One current example of how FEWS NET functions as an early warning system involves the drought in Haiti. Because FEWS NET tracks the weather patterns, agricultural production, and food prices in Haiti, Haiti was able to offset the effects of the drought and the spread of the drought by arranging for food rations from sources such as the United Nations’ World Food Programme.


Facebook’s new “Nearby Friends” feature could be a tool for disasters

During Tuesday’s class we discussed different technology tools that can be used to respond to disasters. Today, I read an article on CNN.com about Facebook launching a new feature called “Nearby Friends” and I thought it could be an interesting tool that could be used to respond to natural disasters, though it certainly does have some drawbacks. If users choose to turn the feature on, their friends will be able to follow their location. The idea is that the feature will enable face-to-face interaction by allowing users to see which of their friends are nearby. Users are also able to choose which friends are able to access their location information. Furthermore, the location is only shared with friends who have agreed to also share their locations. The feature will automatically update the location of the user.

The initial safety and privacy concerns are mitigated since Facebook made the feature opt-in and gives users much flexibility in choosing who is allowed to view their location. Users must be cautious with who they allow to follow them and parents must be especially vigilant about their children. But, if used properly, it gives only people close to them the ability to view their location. In times of disaster, this could be extremely beneficial. Following disasters, family and friends often have a difficult time locating their loved ones. This feature has the potential to allow people to quickly locate their loved ones. It could be deployed in disaster zones for this purpose.  It is, however, limited in how much it could be used since the app would still require some type of network connection to continue sending updates.


The New Airpower: More than Warfare

When thinking about disaster relief and humanitarian aid, we often see NGOs as the major players. In addition, we often see governments and militaries as the bad guys in the field of development work. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the military is no longer confined to linear warfare. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, militaries dealt increasingly with natural disasters, humanitarian relief operations, resource conflicts, terrorism, small-scale conventional conflicts, and insurgencies. Some of the most prominent forces in disaster relief are militaries.

According to an article from the International Relations and Security Network in Zurich, the United States Air Force (USAF) recently modified its definition of airpower. In the past, airpower was limited to war-faring aircrafts and pioneering spacecraft. The definition of airpower now includes cyber power. It is important to note that USAF does not see cyber power as a channel for carrying out operations but rather an enabler that facilitates improved operations.

This new take on military operations just goes to show the increasing importance of ICTs. If the military is becoming increasingly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian aid, while it’s broadening its definition of airpower to include cyber technology, it sets the stage for utilizing ICTs in disasters. ICTs are not only useful in their own respects (early warning systems, government alerts on iPhones, locating missing persons, mapping, etc.), but they can be used to improve existing operations. ICTs could help the military, and NGOS as well, manage their soldiers/volunteers, track distribution of aid materials, improve efficiency of aid delivery, and the list goes on. If you needed a reason before to consider ICTs a crucial part of humanitarian work, take a look at the United States Air Force who is restructuring itself to include natural disasters as a part of its duties and ICTs a part of its anatomy.


Social Media and Disasters

After large disasters, public information is very important. People want to be fully informed on the extent of the disaster, and they want to know right away. These days the quickest way to gather the latest information, most of the time, is through social media. Social media allows everyday people to report the news as they see it to a large amount of people. They can do this through Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, blogs, and much more. Average people are not the only ones using social media, and it has become a very important with emergency aid organizations.

The Congressional Research Service found that organizations use social media in emergencies and disasters in two main ways. First, to give out information and receive feedback. The second way is using social media as an emergency management tool. “Systematic usage  might include using the medium to conduct emergency communications and issue warnings; using social media to receive victim requests for assistance; monitoring user activities to establish situational awareness; and using uploaded images to create damage estimates, among others”.(Lindsay)

There is no question that social media has been very beneficial in releasing information to vast amounts of people. There is still worry of the effectiveness and reliability of social media for emergencies. There have been issues of people relying too heavily on social media, and asking for help through Facebook or Twitter, rather than calling 911. There have also been many false alarms through social media, which wastes time and money. Either way, social media usage is here to stay and it will be interesting to see how emergency and disaster management continue to utilize it.

 

Lindsay, Bruce. Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations. Rep. N.p.: n.p., 2011. Print.


ICT and Disaster Preparedness: A Nepalese Case Study

In today’s ICT4D class we explored the use of technology during emergencies. While I was initially aware of ICTs for the purpose of humanitarian efforts following a disaster or country emergency, I was not completely versed in the potential that ICT has during before and during the actual emergency event. Following our discussion of ICT for disaster resilience, I decided to do some research on my focus country, Nepal. Situated in a highly volatile geographic region, Nepal is susceptible to massive earthquakes on a fairly regular basis. Therefore, the humanitarian efforts in the country have given a significant amount of thought to the integration of ICT for disaster preparedness. According to an article by the ICT Humanitarian Emergency Platform, Nepal is working on reducing the impact of natural disasters through the use of ICT. Specifically, the International Committee of the Red Cross has developed an Emergency Preparedness Plan (EPP) for maintaining communication during an earthquake.

The EPP includes a number of procedures to maintain information and communication throughout a disaster. To start with, they have technical physical equipment stored away for easy transportation and relocation. During a disaster, the plan initiates communication to the Headquarters in Geneva which then deploys a secondary emergency response. The plan also includes setting up communication with satellite phones and establishes connections to the office and corporate networks from remote locations. The goal of the plan is to keep officials in contact with each other because “communications is one of the most important tools during an emergency response operation.”

The plan, however, does not go into detail on what to do once communications are set up. Importantly, ICT during a disaster is necessary but not sufficient to reducing harm and damage to a country and its people. Similarly, even if officials have access to communication and information, it does not mean that anyone else does. I would like to find further emergency plans for Nepal that explore how ICT can be an advantage to the average person on the ground during a disaster. More so, I would like to see how ICT is integrated into the preparation, response, and recovery of more organizations in Nepal beyond The Red Cross. All questions aside, I was pleasantly surprised that humanitarian efforts in Nepal had integrated ICT into their action plan.


Crowd-sourcing in ICT4D

Dr. Stephen Ward’s lecture to our class on the importance of crowd-sourcing really opened my eyes to ways the technology could be used in ICT4D. While in the western world crowd-sourcing has been used to improve websites but also provide controversial marketing information to advertising agencies and corporations, the concept as a whole was repurposed by “DigitalGlobe”, which uses GIS and satellite imaging technologies, to launch their crowd-sourcing platform “Tomnod” in an effort to assist locating the lost Malaysian plane in early March. Developments in crowd sourcing and GIS satellite technologies opened up the information source to thousands of users who were able to provide up to date information on the whereabouts of the plane. Applying crowd-sourcing to other endeavors in ICT4D to provide up to date and accessible information to those in the developing world on their surroundings could be endlessly useful in the coming years not only in disaster prevention but also in instituting projects who’s success depends on the nature of the landscape. DigitalGlobe’s five high-resolution imaging satellites were able to capture more than 3 million square kilometers of earth imagery each day, providing an incredible volume of imagery that would have been overwhelming were it not for the “Tomnod” crowdsourcing mechanism. The efforts of millions of online volunteers around the world helped DigitalGlobe rule of some of the major oceanic areas in order to hone in on more likely locations, leading to a more efficient search process.


The Value of Crowd-Sourcing and Private Sector Data Analysis in Disaster Response

Today, Senior Geospatial scientist Steven Ward presented to the class the ways in which his company ‘DigitalGlobe‘ combines ICT, geospatial data, satellite imagery for use in a number of industries, including development. DigitalGlobe operates a number of satellites that take images of the earth’s surface and disseminates them to a number of clients, including the US government, Google, the UN, and various NGOs, among many others. An even more critical aspect of the company is the data analysis it provides, which is largely supplemented by crowdsourcing techniques. For example, scientists like Steven Ward will publicize certain images of a disaster area, such as satellite photographs taken of a mountain range in which climbers have gone missing. DigitalGlobe employees will then look at trends of information tagged on these pictures by the public, an analysis that is augmented by a number of algorithms that help to determine the degree of validity of the information they are receiving. They can then analyze the aggregate data to try and find precisely where the missing climbers set up their base camp, climbed, and eventually fell (find the story here). Though this specific case is tragic, it reveals a host of ways in which vital information can be amassed through ICT techniques such as crowdsourcing, as well as how tech-based firms can contribute their innovations and analysis in times of need.  The company is an important example of the private sector’s role in aiding humanitarian crises as well as its contributions in developing key information systems that can make or break disaster response.

Another important take-way from Ward’s lecture was simply the logic surrounding open-source data analysis, which is an ICT in itself. Ward pointed out that “more hands make light work”, which is a critical notion in time sensitive situations such as Guinea’s recent Ebola outbreak, where health care experts need as much data as possible to determine the pathways of an extremely lethal disease in a population dense area. Though some might worry that information coming from the masses is more likely to be incorrect, this is actually a misconception; Wikipedia, which is a compilation made by thousands of ‘amateurs’ has a credibility ranking of 8/10, while Encyclopedia Britannica, which is a collaboration of fewer ‘experts’, has a score of 8.8/10. The fact that these sources have such similar scores demonstrates a key point of value for crowdsourcing techniques: the more people that contribute to and review the data, the more accurate it is likely to be. Therefore crowdsourcing in itself is many times one of the most valuable approaches to mapping disaster and crises, as well as other, less time sensitive development sectors such as poverty, agribusiness land-grabbing, vulnerable agricultural lands, and thousands of other factors that may be critical to the interventions of stakeholders within the field.

 


Education and Training to Ensure Sustainability for ICT Applications

In class today we discussed the various ICT applications in all sectors worldwide such as Health, Energy and Environment, Disaster and Humanitarian Aid, Agriculture and Business. It is definitely clear from the presentations that a common challenge each sector faces when implementing ICT’s is proper education and training programs for management and regulation. Education must come from both sides from the outside in, and the inside out. People who are coming into a country must understand that the “One Size Fits All” method has a high failure rate and overall does not work due to the  uniqueness of each developing country. On the other hand, the people within these countries must be properly educated about the changes and new systems created for their benefits. Without proper education about new types of technology (computers, e-Health), new systems (Green spaces, GIS, early warning systems), the sustainability of the projects are at a high risk. Specifically in health education, as discussed by fellow classmates, is one of the more important topics because of the high birth rates that are overcrowding communities and making poverty and hunger more prevalent. By simply spreading necessary health information about pregnancy and up to date information about maternal care, this can be alleviated with just the spread of vital information and filling education gaps in this sector.

In addition, training programs in these sectors help ensure initial successes and positive outcomes (both short term and long term), ensure sustainability for the future and even create jobs for technicians or experts in for a given sector. This would also help create a bottom-up approach to implementation strategies. For the Humanitarian aid especially this is vital because it comes at a high (yet necessary) cost, so efficiency is necessary.

Though money will always be an issue for many of the implementations of new programs or systems for development through ICT, without training and education the sustainability of each and every one is at a high risk. Unless long-term protocols are set in place, the successes of the short term are qualitatively less valuable.


Online Search Party: the Novice Hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

On Thursday, our class had the distinct pleasure of hearing a guest lecture from Robert Banick, a GIS coordinator at the American Red Cross, by way of Skype. According to Robert’s twitter , his work entails “Making maps with stuff, responding to disasters and everything in between.” Needless to say, his perspective was rather interesting and presented us with a good idea of just how important Geographic Information Systems are, even though they are often overlooked.

While demand for mappers like Robert is often contingent on natural disasters, similar disciplines are being employed at this very moment in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. For those of you who don’t know much about the current situation, last Friday, a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China vanished from radar communication somewhere over either the Indian or Pacific Oceans. It is unclear where/when/why the plane went down. However, experts are now saying that the flight most likely veered West from its usual flight-path and put the plane down in the Indian Ocean. Without the recovery of the plane’s transponder, they can’t narrow the search area by very much. Therefore, there is a lot of ocean to cover in the search and that is very time- and energy-consuming.

However, experts are encouraging civilians, with no prior experience necessary, to join in the search. This crowdsourcing approach makes use of the website Tomnod.com. Tomnod is a software run by commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe, which repositioned two of its satellites over the area when this issue came about. Tomnod users are provided with a randomly chosen map from the search area and are told to drop a pin if they see signs of wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks or anything else that looks “suspicious.” An algorithm then finds where there is overlap in tags from people who tagged the same location, and the most notable areas are shared with authorities. Many people are calling this program a sort of “online search party.” While the results are so far inconclusive, that is no reason to be discouraged, as authorities are doing no better in solving the mystery. Like Robert Banick, Tomnod played an important role in the efforts around Typhoon Haiyan as well.

According to a Tomnod spokesperson, as of Thursday, every pixel had been looked at by human eyes at least 30 times. Although nothing significant has turned up yet, this is incredible progress in the search and saves authorities from a lot of redundancy. In short, this is a very current and real-life example of just how valuable GIS is in these situations. Without satellite imagery and a collective, off-site effort, it would take search and rescue teams weeks or months to cover the area that is covered by the online community in just a few days.


OpenStreetMap

I wasn’t familiar with OpenStreetMap before yesterday’s Skype session with Robert Banick. If you haven’t heard of it either, I highly recommend checking it out. After his lecture and our discussion, I looked up a little more on OpenStreetMap and I found this case study written by Steve Chilton. He points out the need for instant information, especially during disaster situations. Chilton even uses Hurricane Katrina as an example, stating that it serves as the perfect example of how not up-to-date maps may have a severe effect on how crises are handled. He specifically points out a problem the Red Cross had with Google Maps after the storm because they had no idea of the state of US 90 bridge. Only locals would have been able to share information like that, and a crowd sourcing map could have been the solution.

This example got me thinking as to how this platform could not only affect our city of New Orleans, but also the large effect it could have on the developing world. The really interesting aspect to this concept is the immediacy that new information can be uploaded to the maps. Chilton talks about how OpenStreetMap was able to map Gaza during and following the Israeli/Gaza conflict by compiling various resources and applying them to OpenStreetMap.

I think we will see much more of OpenStreetMap in the future, and if you want to learn more you can click here!