Tag Archives: disaster response

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.

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.




“I want to draw your attention to a gap that exists today between the public’s use of social media in a disaster and the ability of disaster response organizations and relief agencies to act on that information.” In a testimony to Congress in 2011, Suzy DeFrancis, Chief Public Affairs Officer of the American Red Cross, brings to light a key issue area in current disaster relief strategy. The potential value of social media during disaster situations is enormous, more and more often people are using social media outlets such as Twitter or Facebook to alert others of their well-being (or not) and whereabouts immediately after a disaster. While social media may not be accessible to some in lesser developed countries, mobile phones and texting is almost an universal function that is available globally. The 2010 Emergency Social Data Summit at the American Red Cross identified key benefits and challenges associated with the use of texting in a disaster situation. Their report identified texting as the most accessible technology across socio-economic groups. Furthermore, texting costs less and requires less bandwidth then say a phone call, a tweet, or a Facebook post.

A priority of disaster response is making the situation less chaotic. By encouraging citizens participation and empowering people to contribute to the relief effort on the ground, a sense of order and accomplishment can be achieved. Using text messages to send out information about shelters, food and water resources, or first aid stations could save precious time and help agencies efficiently distribute their resources. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate emphasizes the importance of enabling people to see themselves as survivors, not victims, of a disaster. Social media and text messaging could be a viable means for empowerment. Citizen reporting can be extremely useful and is sometimes the only information aid agencies have available, yet presents the following challenges: (1) Misinformation (2) Overwhelming the system (3) Language (4) Platform Failure. In order to overcome these challenges the public must be educated on the appropriate manner in which to contact aid agencies before a disaster, so as to manage the response expectations. Furthermore, one single agency or social media platform should not be responsible for all requests; a collaborative effort is much less vulnerable to shocks and unprecedented failures. The potential technology has to coordinate relief efforts and save lives is astounding, aid agencies simply must keep up with technological advances while staying in tune with public use. 

Text Messages for Emergency and Disaster Management

The recent “severe” winter weather in New Orleans got me thinking about the use of ICTs for disaster prevention and warning. I was alerted that campus would be closed by text message sent by the Tulane Emergency Alert system and was also told about various road closures (such as the I-10 shut down) via text message. This method seemed to be the simplest and smartest way to communicate vital information with a large population. Could this same system be expanded to communicate pertinent information in disaster situations?

The answer appears to be yes it can. The FCC in response to the 2006 Warning Alert and Response Network Act has been working with wireless carriers to establish a system of nationwide alerts which could spread information in case of a disaster to all mobile phones in the United States.  The FCC describes the plan as consisting of three levels or phases. “The first would be a national alert from the president, likely involving a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The second would involve “imminent threats,” which could include natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes or even university shootings. The third would be reserved for child abduction emergencies, or so-called Amber Alerts.

Receiving these messages could also be free from carrier charges and be delivered by a unique audio signature or “vibration cadence.”

In the developing world the same systems are under construction. Before the 2007 tsunami in Sri Lanka text messages were use to alert people to evacuate even before official television and radio broadcasts were interrupted with the alert. There was no official text message warning system in place but those that lived on the coast received text messages from friends hours before the official warning were released which told them to leave.

The government attempted to send out emergency phone calls but the volume of traffic jammed the system and made phone calls impossible. In the future the  “National Telecommunications Authority has now asked subscribers to stick to text messaging during national emergencies.”

Once an official text message alert system is in place the government could use it not only to warn people of impending disasters but also spread information about relief efforts. The system could allow residents to know about refugee camps, food drops, and alert people when it is safe to return home.

Currently many opt-in system exist for spreading information about tsunami and hurricane alerts but many governments are working on systems that will spread these types of alerts to everyone without the need to sign up independently.





“Harnessing the Power of the Crowd”

This article from The Guardian begins by referencing a topic we have previously discussed in ICT4D: the use of social media in disaster response. Rather than praising the quick-information system, the author criticizes it for the expected overflow of inherently useless information.Thus, researches have come up with a system of Micromapping to help coordinate mapping and social media efforts in response to disasters. Developed in Qatar, and exactly one month ago the U.N. called on them to test the program on the earthquake in Pakistan.They initially got the idea after crisis mapping Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Mappers used videos and pictures tweeted to compile their mapping information and accurately assess the damages.This article was great at showing the intertwined benefits and capabilities of using multiple ICTs. In particular, it uses the ability to map as a major factor in disaster response, that, combined with social media, is growing in importna.ce


ICT Use in Hurricane Katrina: Freedom4Wireless

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, ICT infrastructure was severely damaged and communication was compromised. With many cell phone towers out of service, people were forced to use other means of communication to locate loved ones and seek aid. An article published in MIT Technology Review titled “Technology Responds to Hurricane Katrina” shortly after Katrina hit, highlighted the use of ICTs in locating and assisting victims.

The article discusses how Craigslist became a forum to find missing persons. Motorola mobilized equipment including radios and chargers to aid in communication. Many people turned to radio for their information needs due to cell phone tower failures. In addition, people outside of the disaster zone were able to donate to the relief effort through the Internet. Katrina highlighted a change in disaster response that was shaped by the use of information and communication technologies.

The article also mentions Freedom4Wireless, an organization providing mobile wireless networks in disaster situations. It was founded in 2003 and was called on to provide affordable communication technology when Katrina hit in 2005. Freedom4Wireless (F4W) sent personnel to the area to set up technology allowing rescue workers to stay connected. The equipment is solar and battery powered and provided communication where none existed. F4W stayed for months after Hurricane Katrina hit to help facilitate recovery efforts.

Since 2005, F4W’s technology has advanced and improved. It has been deployed in a number of disaster recovery efforts and has extended service to places with insufficient infrastructure to support communication technology. While our dependence on technology has the potential to be debilitating during emergency situations, Freedom4Wireless represents a new era of disaster response that relies on communication technology.


Voluntweeters: Self-Organized Volunteers following the Haiti Earthquake

Similarly to the crowdsourcing efforts we studied using Open Street Maps during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, social media and  Twitter were utilized in self-organization in the same disaster setting pertaining to digital volunteers. The development of a Tweak the Tweet (TtT) syntax was effective in creating a universal language for those helping with these efforts. The website allowed any Tweeter to transform their information into the TfT syntax, thus creating “translators” that transformed unstructured essential information into understandable data. Th4 volunteers were not mandated by any one company, but came out organically through the Twitter world. Using specialized TtT hashtags such as #need or #offer, allowed tweets pertaining to this effort to be easily identifiable, allowing the information to be shown in an ongoing feed.

Many of these translator volunteers had personal connections with Haiti, others felt the need to be active in the relief efforts, if even from afar. The platform for Twitter made it easier for this emergent group to connect, interact and self-organize. Hashtags make the filtering of information especially simple through Twitter. The article cites that a few of the volunteers decided to use the hashtag #rescuemehaiti. In this way, they were able to contact those in need of help, asking them to use this tag for aid requests. The tag was able to catch on quickly, making it an effective communication skill between those on the ground and the volunteers, who thus were in contact with direct relief efforts.

The idea of “crisis tweeting” allows for quick and vital information to be relayed from both sides. Hashtags make this idea especially useful in its ability to organize and view items with similar relationships. The speed and brevity of Twitter (140 characters or less) allows for information to be communicated as it is happening and thus aid to be allocated as the information rolls in.

The use of ICTs in relief efforts cannot be undermined: through social media’s far-reaching scope, information in a disaster is disseminated through different channels, allowing help to arrive more quickly and resources to be better dispersed.

Read the full study here.


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.

UNICEF’s Knight News Challenge – Voices of Youth Maps

These past couple of weeks we have been introduced to some interesting and (at least for me) new things. The open street map assignment made me aware of something I never knew existed until now. I think it’s a really interesting component of what role ICTs can have in impacting development, especially when taken into context with disaster response. Along these lines, I found this really cool project that is part of a challenge put on by the Knight Foundation, the “Knight News Challenge” with the subject “How might we improve the way citizens and governments interact?” Here is a brief video giving some context to the project:

UNICEF, as part of this challenge, is working on a project geared towards empowering youth in cities to map their neighborhoods in order to facilitate the communication between government and citizens, as well as improve response measures taken in disaster prone urban areas. The project focuses for now on the cities of Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro.

Their project in one sentence: “Digital maps created by young advocates establish a collaborative space for municipal government and community to work together towards safer neighborhoods.” 

In February 2013 they trained ~300 youth mappers to cover 11 favelas in Rio and 2 neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. These ‘youth reports’ have already led to bridges getting fixed, flood walls being reinforced, and playgrounds cleared of stagnant water according to their description.

youth mappers in action - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

youth mappers in action – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Their approach uses a workshop which employs the UNICEF- Geographic Information System (UNICEF-GIS) which is a smartphone app. It allows the users to collect and “share location sensitive reports in a simple, private and secure manner.” The app creates a map of all reports filtered depending on the hazards, etc. Voices of Youth (the UNICEF moderated youth-friendly public platform) allows the mappers to turn their reports into “powerful advocacy materials, which they can promote collectively through other social and local media channels.”

Why Youth Mappers? “because young people bring a truthful first-hand and real perspective to the program, making our maps extremely compelling. If [the government] ignores maps by youth, then they are denying the needs of their most vulnerable and innocent citizens who are the voices of the future, as well as potential community leaders.”

Between March 1st and July 1st?

1) Prototyping an “Urgency Rank System”. The number of reports are increasingly growing, and in response we are devising a system to label and rank                          reports based on severity and urgency.

2) An administrative system that will allow users to create profiles and trainers to customize the layers on their maps.

3) A widget that will allow for a new interlinked Voices of Youth Maps to be embedded easily into any website for sharing youth posted multi-media reports.

4) Various upgrades to capacity and usability for UNICEF-GIS app and website.

5) A “Voices of Youth Maps and Civic Media How-To Guidebook” for streamlining trainings and project implementation as we scale to new cities.

Case Study: The Peoplefinder Project

Hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters that travel distances are by their very nature able to give advance notice to significant populations of potential victims that lie in their path. It is for these types of destructive natural phenomena that the use of ICTs can mean life or death for certain groups of people.

Hurricane Katrina was no exception, as many residents of affected coastal areas who did not evacuate were unable to make contact with relatives and friends using traditional landline phones. Enter The Katrina PeopleFinder Project. This quickly-formed, massively distributed effort run by over 100 volunteer techies, and even more data-entry volunteers, created a uniform standard for collecting, compiling, data-entering, and searching information on people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Peoplefinder addressed the risk of duplicating other efforts, or interrupting existing momentum, by “structuring” their data in an open-source format. Volunteers did this by matching up partial information from one source or another, and compiling the information into one, comprehensive source- and one that complimented efforts by the Red Cross and others. Enlisting the aid of nonprofit technology assistance providers Radical Designs, Social Source Foundation, and CivicSpace Labs, the site http://www.neworleansnetwork.org was created with open source technologies designed by and for nonprofits. Using this tool, refugees and others affected by the storm could locate missing family members or access other information to help the people of New Orleans stay connected to the communities they loved.

This and other ICT services played an immense role in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Had those volunteers not donated hours of their time to searching, compiling, and entering data on victims of the storm, many would have undoubtedly been waiting far longer to find out about their missing loved ones, if they found out about them at all.