Computing Applications News

Improving Disaster Management

Social networking, sophisticated imaging, and dual-use technologies promise improved disaster management, but they must be adopted by governments and aid agencies if more lives are to be saved in the wake of crises.
  1. Introduction
  2. New Thinking, New Tools
  3. Author
  4. Footnotes
  5. Figures
man with mobile phone after earthquake in Sichuan, China
A man uses his mobile phone's camera to document the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the city of Dujiangyan, in the province of Sichuan, China, on May 12, 2008.

When the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ripped through the heart of New York City, the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings created chaos and mayhem in central London, and the Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake caused a tsunami that swept away more than 200,000 lives, information and communication technologies played a part in disaster response. Communication was key, but not always possible as infrastructure collapsed and mobile phone networks became overloaded, prompting renewed efforts to develop effective disaster management strategies.

Research organizations, relief agencies, and technology providers agree that technology can save lives in a disaster, but here consensus ends, with a rift between researchers pursuing the possibilities of Web 2.0 applications and field workers largely committed to their traditional toolkit of mobile and satellite phones.

“IT systems make it possible to handle large amounts of data to assess the situation after a disaster has struck, but we need to move in the direction of community response, developing media centers that accommodate citizen journalists,” says Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Official agencies need to interact with citizen first responders and assess information being gathered in the field, rather than depending on information that is filtered through hierarchical organizations. The information may not be 100% accurate, but mobile phone pictures taken at the scene provide the most rapid information.”

Tierney is a proponent of Web 2.0 applications, such as Twitter, blogs, and wikis, as a means of improving disaster response. “People’s use of technology in crises is expanding rapidly, ahead of the use of technology by emergency management agencies,” she says. “We need people in these agencies who are disaster and technology savvy. We also need opinion leaders and foundations that fund disaster assistance to think along new lines.”

The concept of community response plays into the thesis of Ramesh Rao, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at the University of California, San Diego. Rao believes research into technological, sociological, and organizational issues is critical to the improvement of disaster response. “There is a great opportunity to use technology to improve disaster management, but at the moment people are in the way of that improvement,” he says. “There is a lack of information sharing, which is not a technology problem, but a problem stemming from organizations wanting things this way.”

One advance Rao suggests is dual use of technology. During peaceful times, dual-use technology, such as a mobile phone, operates as a everyday personal communications device, but during an emergency it transforms into an information sensor and disseminator. This overcomes aversion to using different communications equipment during a crisis and eliminates the time lag caused by government agencies collecting, processing, and distributing crisis-related data. Direct, firsthand reports from a disaster can provide a realistic picture, helping to avoid the confusion that can result from wide-spread, and not always accurate, television broadcasts.

Proving the value of dual-use technology, Calit2 has developed a peer-to-peer incident notification system that builds on the concept of human sensors. The human sensors collect and relay information about events, such as wildfires and traffic accidents, to first responders and the general public using mobile phones.

The notification system is available across all of California’s major cities and is based on speech recognition, allowing commuters to call in and report incidents, or call in and listen about events that could disrupt their travel. Content is self-regulated with users flagging incidents that are irrelevant or abusive, and the notification system includes algorithms that rate users who report incidents. Conversely, the system can notify all users of an incident via a voice call or text message.

“If you see an accident and call 911, the police come, the local radio station picks up what has happened and transmits the problem, but that’s often too late to allow commuters to get off the highway,” Ganz Chockalingam, principal development engineer at Calit2 and developer of the notification system, explains. “The incident notification system is successful because there is no middle man and no time delay. Typically, we get about 1,000 calls a day, but during the California wildfires [in 2009] that went up to about 10,000 calls a day.”

Unlike traditional disaster management systems that are inflexible and constrained by capacity, this peer-to-peer system can scale to deliver real-time information during a disaster as there is no single channel of information and no single point of information control. The project is currently funded by Calit2, although Chockalingam points out that costs are relatively low as much depends on user technology.

Disaster response needs to “move in the direction of community response, developing media centers that accommodate citizen journalists,” says Kathleen Tierney.

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New Thinking, New Tools

Stepping out of research labs and into the commercial world, disaster management development follows the path of improved global communication and social networking. ImageCat, a risk-management innovation company based in Long Beach, CA, works with government, industry, and research organizations to develop new thinking, tools, and services that are available to both government agencies and businesses, such as insurance companies that need to estimate losses after a disaster.

ImageCat also concentrates on remote sensing and geographic information systems. One recent development is a virtual disaster viewer, a Web-based system that uses remote sensors to gather information that can be displayed and used to assess the aftermath of disaster. The viewer is a social networking-type tool to which researchers and the public can add information. It was tested during the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province of China, with about 100 engineers accessing before and after satellite imagery to monitor the extent of damage in the region.

“The viewer allows users to conduct a virtual disaster survey without leaving their desks,” says ImageCat CEO Ronald Eguchi. “In the future, people at the scene who take pictures with mobile phones will be able to upload them to the viewer. We are in discussion with the United Nations about how it could use the viewer in disaster management.”

With a myriad of sensors around the world and optical and radar satellite images of an adequate resolution to see people on the ground, the possibilities of gathering and sharing data, such as earthquake, coastal, and hurricane images, are almost boundless and could support significant humanitarian relief efforts.

The benefits of satellite images in disaster response are not limited to countries that own satellites, however, and disaster-struck countries can activate a clause of the Charter of the United Nations that requires imagery to be made available to a nation in distress.

Eguchi believes much more can be done with technology to save lives in a disaster, but also recognizes the realities of aid agencies. “Technologies such as the virtual disaster viewer are new to aid agencies. Agencies need technology that is tested and validated, that adds value to what they do and demonstrates efficiency in getting the right information to the right people at the right time,” he says.

UNICEF workers say the best in-field technologies for disaster management are simple to use, low maintenance, lightweight, and cheap. Reflecting Rao’s promotion of dual-use technologies that require minimal training, UNICEF is pioneering RapidSMS and a field-based communications system called Bee.

RapidSMS provides real-time transmission of data in a breaking emergency or in a long-standing disaster, allowing aid workers to monitor supplies and report on situations that require immediate response. At the moment, it is being used in a number of African countries to monitor nutrition, water, sanitation, and supply chains.

UNICEF’s Bee is an open source emergency telecommunications system that provides Internet access in areas where infrastructure is nonexistent or unusable. It provides a telephony service and Wi-Fi access to applications such as ones that monitor health and track supplies. The Bee system requires no tools, and can be installed by a field worker and be operational within 30 minutes. Working with RapidSMS, it helps UNICEF provision supplies appropriately and gives workers immediate warnings of potential health risks and disease outbreaks. When an area stabilizes, the Bee system is left in place, acting as a base for a new communications infrastructure.

International humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps also focuses on communication. “The driving force behind all the equipment we carry is communications and we use the cheapest services we can find,” says Richard Jacquot, a member of Mercy Corps’ global emergency operations team. “We all carry a BlackBerry, a cheap local mobile, a satellite phone such as the Inmarsat BGAN, sometimes a VHF radio set and a laptop equipped with applications, including Microsoft Office, email, and a Web browser. Where there is no network, or when a hostile government blocks access to local networks, we depend on satellite technology.”

Far from the world of Web 2.0 collaboration tools in the war-torn regions of Africa and Asia, Jacquot’s technology request is simple. “We have to carry too many tools, then we have to get authorization for them depending on where we are. Integrating everything into one device is too much to ask for, but some integration would be great,” he says.

While those in the labs developing technology applications for disaster management and those in the field seeking simple, usable, and affordable solutions share the belief that technology can save more lives, it is important to not ignore the self-imposed threat created by technology development and nurtured by those who see it as a weapon with which to kill rather than a shield with which to protect.

“In the 2008 Mumbai hotel bombing, the terrorists were more effective in their use of technology than the officials,” notes Rao. “They used information systems and cell phones, while the commandos sent in to clean up did not have cell phones, so they couldn’t communicate with each other or people in the hotel.

“Official organizations are slow and their thinking is ossified,” Rao says, “but that will change and technology will be better used to reduce the loss of lives in disaster management and support quicker recovery of communities and infrastructure.”

*  Further Reading

Dilmaghani, B. and Rao, R. A systematic approach to improve communication for emergency response. Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Waikoloa, HI, January 2009.

Lien, Y.N., Tsai, T.C., and Jang, H.C. A MANET-based emergency communication and information system for catastrophic natural disasters. 2009 29th IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems, Montreal, Canada, June 2009.

Palen, L. and Liu, S. Citizen communications in crisis: anticipating a future of ICT-supported public participation. Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, CA, April 2007.

Shklovski, I., Palen, L., and Sutton, J. Finding community through information and communication technology in disaster response. Proceedings of the ACM 2008 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, San Diego, CA, November 2008.

Showalter, P. and Lu, Y. (eds.) Geospatial Techniques in Urban Hazard and Disaster Analysis. Springer, new York, 2009.

Tierney, K. From the margins to the mainstream? disaster research at the crossroads. Annual Review of Sociology, Palo Alto, CA, August 2007.

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UF1 Figure. A man uses his mobile phone’s camera to document the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated the city of Dujiangyan, in the province of Sichuan, China, on May 12, 2008.

UF2 Figure. In Malawi, UNICEF’s RapidSMS system enables the registration of children and the monitoring of their nutritional status in an effort to stem the nation’s high infant mortality rate.

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