Tag Archives: disaster relief

The Power of OpenStreetMap

Before our class today, I had never heard of OpenStreetMap, map crowd sourcing or using different maps to collect data and help in disaster response. I am in no way a map enthusiast but the work that the Red Cross was able to do in Gulu, Uganda and in Tacloban City, Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan by using OSM is very remarkable. Upon further research into OpenStreetMap, I came across their sister company CloudMade. CloudMade uses maps from OSM to allow users to access map data, points of interest, navigation, routing and other data around their location even when not connected to the Internet. It all sounds well and good but I was still skeptical about the feasibility of this operation and even the necessity of OpenStreetMap when the map market already has technological heavyweights such as Google Maps, Nokia HERE, TomTom and to some extent companies like FourSquare and Yelp.

But as this article suggests, monopolies on markets are not healthy for anyone involved. Furthermore, OpenStreetMap and founder Steve Coast’s other business endeavors have helped to revolutionize how we look at it and use maps. As of January 2014, OSM had over 1.5 million registered editors, with that number only growing because of the simple editing features that allow and encourage anyone with computer knowledge to contribute to the mapping platform. Obviously no mapping system is 100% accurate and even more so when the editing platform is open to the public. And with OSM and CloudMade offering international maps via Wi-Fi and in offline modes, this allows for people all over the globe to navigate without giving away personal location details, a big concern with users of Google Maps. This accessibility is certainly a major advantage that OSM possesses and explains why it has been such a helpful tool for the Red Cross in disaster relief. I am a big proponent of crowd sourcing and I believe that Wikipedia has shown that using volunteers and peer editing can be a viable tool for providing information. I can only hope that OpenStreetMap does the same with maps, not just for disaster response and international development but in all situations.

Radio in Post-Disaster Haiti

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. In the chaos and destruction after the earthquake hit, one radio station continued broadcasting and became a lifeline for Haitians. The station, called Signal FM, somehow withstood the earthquake and its tower was not damaged. Immediately after the earthquake, with electricity supplied by generators, the station started broadcasting important information about where to find help. One woman was even able to find her missing husband through a message she broadcasted on Signal FM. The station stayed on the air constantly for the two weeks after the earthquake. Originally they only had three days of fuel for their generators, but the Haitian government and several NGOs stepped up and provided funding to keep the station on the air. Signal FM organized a panel discussion on-air with journalists to keep people up to date on what was happening in the post-disaster chaos. According to this CNN report Signal FM reached about 3 million people in the Port-au-Prince area during the disaster and was also available to over the Internet. The fact that Signal FM combines traditional radio presence is combined with availability on the Internet is a great example of blending different types of ICTs in order to reach more people, as we saw in the case of the Farm Radio in Africa using SMS to tune people in to radio broadcasts.

Signal FM has been extremely important in disaster recovery in Haiti, especially considering the fact that Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, has only a 62% literacy rate. In this context, the radio is an effective ICT because it can reach large quantities of people in their native language and give them access to critical survival information in a post-disaster setting. The importance and effectiveness of radio in post-earthquake Haiti can be seen in the fact that the U.S. Army handed out solar-powered and hand-cranked radios to around 80,000 Haitians living in  a displacement camp close to Port-au-Prince. In situations of extreme disaster, where other ICTs are not feasible due to the destruction of infrastructure, radio is often the most effective tool in getting critical information to the greatest number of people. According to Louis Richardson, a Haitian earthquake survivor quoted in the CNN report, Signal FM radio was “the most important source of information.”

Case Study: Bangladesh. An impressive plan for disaster risk reduction using ICTs

Bangladesh is very vulnerable to natural disasters like floods, river erosion, tidal surges, tropical cyclones, and earthquakes due to the vast network of rivers and channels, the geographic location of the country, and the monsoon climate. Over the past 30 years, frequent natural disasters in Bangladesh have taken the lives of thousands of people and cost the country millions of dollars in damage. About 200,000 people are displaced each year due to river erosion alone. In order to prevent more tragedy in the future, Bangladesh has put much effort into developing effective “early warning systems” for disaster management and prevention.

Under their National ICT Policy, the following action agendas have been identified for disaster management:

–       Protect citizens from natural disasters through ICT-based disaster warning and management technologies

i. Utilize remote sensing technologies for disaster management and mitigation.

ii. Web-based environmental clearance certification system

iii. Promote cell phone/SMS-based disaster warning systems targeted to the population likely to be affected

iv. Utilize Geographic Information System (GIS)-based systems to monitor flood and cyclone shelters (including equitable distribution in vulnerable areas)

v. Promote efficient relief management and post-disaster activities monitoring

–       Utilize GIS-based systems to ensure equitable distribution of relief goods with special focus on the hard-to-reach areas (Halder & Ahmed, p. 55)

The Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) is leading the charge on these initiatives, in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh and over 100 technical and academic institutions and NGOs at all levels. Their main goal is to strengthen the disaster management system in Bangladesh, but more importantly to focus more heavily on risk reduction (largely through technical assistance) via community risk assessments and mapping, earthquake and tsunami storm surge mapping etc. The National Disaster Management Information Centre (DMIC) has been a key instrument for the CDMP. Together, they produced a very specific list of DMIC information products and media suited to support their disaster management objectives. (It was created based on the CDMP-DMIC needs assessment survey report, so it takes into consideration local ICT profiles, and penetration rates, and individual’s preferences).


(Halder & Ahmed p. 64)

Today, “The DMIC generates time-sensitive information items such as early warnings, situation reports and other real-time data, and presents them in information products delivered through communication channels that cause the least delay, and are consistent with the capacity of users to receive and comprehend them.” (p. 67). One way in which they are acting today is through an alert subscription system which allows individuals to receive early warning messages via email, SMS, or fax. Messages are even tailored to the subscriber’s specific location and local hazard concerns. The work that Bangladesh is doing to re-vamp their disaster management and prevention program is impressive, and their commitment to using ICTs to achieve their goals is paying off.

For more information on this case study (p. 52- 74) and others, click here.

The Importance of ICTs in Disaster Relief: An example of Japan’s Earthquake

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the usage of ICTs in times of emergency aid due to natural disasters. As a class we have been assigned squares to trace buildings and streets as an additional help to the Red Cross and the mapping services. Information Communication Technologies are a crucial aspect to helping disaster relief. With the help of radio satellites, disaster humanitarians can pick up signals and try and help avoid prominent damage by evacuating future affected populations in the areas that are being hit by a natural disaster. If the population has access to mobile phones, the Internet, TV and Radio they can communicate and help themselves in time of crisis by planning their escape routes. The transmission of SMSs have allowed for emergency messages with crucial information to be communicated to family members and emergency crews.

In an article written by Izumi Aizu a research fellow at Tama University the author describes the role of ICTs in a disaster as an example Japan’s earthquake.

In the article “The role of ICT during the disaster – A story of how Internet and other information and communication services could or could not help relief operations at the Great East Japan Earthquake”, Aizu discusses the role ICTs can play on disaster relief by showing that with information communication you can help prepare the affected area for what is coming. He claims that a majority of the population is connected via broadband and 3G network. However according to official data after the quake “telephone operators blocked 90% of calls in the most devastated areas” which is supposedly a standard measure to ensure that emergency services would go through (Aizu  2). However this affected thousands of citizens for they were refused the right to contact their friends and families.

In the coastal areas, the Tsunami destroyed a majority of the infrastructure including telephone lines. Although the Japanese government has over 1500 radio and satellite devices it did not meet the demand for communication and many could not be distributed to certain affected areas. While many people tried to send messages in hopes of receiving food and other aid via social networks such as Facebook or Email, the actual usage of ICTs were very low. Because there was such a low access to ICTs and the government and aid agencies weren’t focusing on improving the ICTs many areas remained very damage for several months. After a number of volunteer ICTs professionals inspected the areas they concluded that they needed to bring in more technologies such as computers and phones in order to help rebuild the area.

However after several months of helping citizens recover with the use of ICTS, iSPP , a pro- bono information support platform, conducted a survey by sending out an online questionnaire which received 2,815 responses and personal interviews with 185 interviewees. The main questions asked were which tools were useful, what information resources did people rely on and many others. The numbers that resulted from the questionnaire showed a severe reduction in ICT usage after the disaster.

In conclusion from the results, many of the people accentuated the importance of power supply in the emergency situation and that with ICTs disaster relief teams can bring the resources needed in time as well with help for preparedness. In response to this article I agree with the article that ICTs is an important aspect of disaster relief and that it is crucial to start now to help future disaster relief.

Twitter Trends in Disaster Response

This past September, the HEROIC (Hazard, Emergency Response, and Online Informal Communication) Project Team, a research team hailing from the University of Colorado, and the University of California-Irvine, recently released a study in which they uncovered twitter trends that occur in the light of natural disasters. They completed their study based on the occurrence of the Waldo Canyon Fire that occurred in Colorado this past June. The fire impacted more than 32,000 residents of the Colorado Springs Area, and resulted in more than $352 million in insurance claims. From the start of the disaster, there were a recorded 100,000 related “tweets” from over 25,000 Twitter users. Following the study, the HEROIC discovered some valuable information regarding the trends of tweets during disasters: 1. Original content is most often produced by local-organizations and then re-tweeted by non-locals. 2. Inclusion of URLs shows that response organizations recognize the need to have additional information available outside of Twitter. 3. Highly active government organizations get the most followers following an event, and the largest of local organizations come in second.

While these types of findings are not groundbreaking by any means, what I think they provide is appropriate tools for us to learn how to use twitter as more than a social media outlet, but more so as a tool and catalyst to disaster relief. The study can definitely help local and national organizations not only better their tweets, but also the timeliness of them and exactly what they should say in order to get their message across as effective as possible. With that being said, I hope they can redo these studies in light of more impactful natural disasters that had more national repercussions such as Hurricane Sandy, because I don’t feel like this specific study covers the whole breadth of twitter as much as I would have liked them to.

The Dangers of Social Media: False Rumors

Hurricane Sandy devastated the east coast this past week, and social media played a huge role in recovery and information about the storm. However, not all of what was shared on social media was helpful to hurricane relief. Some of the pictures and stories that were shared were false. Along with many false pictures, one with the Statue of Liberty being consumed by a tidal wave, there were many false reports being spread about the conditions of the city after the storm. One of these reports was that the stock exchange was flooded with three feet of water. This was shared widely, and many people believed that the storm was far worse than it was, causing fear for many people who had friends and relatives in the affected area.

Although many people spread many different types of erroneous rumors, one culprit on Twitter was found to have been spreading the most prolific false reports about the hurricane. This person goes under the Twitter account name, #comfortablysmug. He made up the story about the stock exchange and made up several other stories about the metro systems and electricity in New York City. Recently, he was revealed to be hedgefund analyst, Shashank Tripathi. Tripathi’s false and shocking tweets were retweeted several hundred times. Although he has apologized for the false tweets, these tweets left a mark on the effects of social media on disaster relief. While social media can be very helpful, it can also hinder relief as false rumors can spread. It is important for people to remember to look for credible sources for their information following up a disaster.

Read the full article here.

The American Red Cross iPhone Application for Hurricane Relief

While researching this week for examples of social media that was used during Hurricane Sandy I came across an iPhone application that was created recently by the American Red Cross to provide resources for iPhone users in the path of a hurricane. The application offers resources such as:

  • “Safe and Well”
  • Food, Water, and Gas Locations
  • Warming Stations
  • FEMA Disaster Center Locater
  • Tips on how to prepare and recover

The application also has a Hurricane Sandy branch that is specific to the Northeast region. In this part of the application, users can track Sandy, find region-specific advice such as where to locate warming stations, and even address the emotional health issues that can come with being a victim of a natural disaster.

The most interesting part of the application addresses communication during disaster. The “Safe and Well” feature was created by the American Red Cross prior to the release of the iPhone application, and was available on their website. People can enter their information into the program so that others that may be searching can locate other displaced peoples. This is a great tool for older generations that may not use tools such as Facebook and Twitter to update their information and communicate with others.

Those that were hit by Hurricane Sandy reviewed and criticized the application, listing it as “indespensible” during the storm, but also listing areas of improvement. For example, some said that after the storm hit, information was not updated often enough. This is a crucial time for users to recieve constant updates while suffering the effects of the storm. Furthermore, there is the issue of the device requiring the GPS locator to be activated on the phone. This drains battery much faster than normal, and this could present an issue especially in a recovering region that may not have electricity to recharge the battery.

I think that this application would have been very useful during Hurricane Katrina. Katrina hit prior to the surge of Facebook and Twitter, and therefore the significant amount of displaced peoples would have greatly benefitted from easy access to the Safe and Well feature. The application also offers a communication tool for those that are affected by the disaster. Users can write about their experience, offer bits of advice for others suffering from the same storm, and provide support. I think that with improvements made after critiques from Sandy users are addressed, applications such as this may play a vital role in future disaster relief.

To learn more about the Red Cross iPhone app, click here.