ICT for Disaster Management/ICT for Disaster Response

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The most difficult period of a disaster is the immediate aftermath. This period calls for prompt action within an exceptionally short period of time. In the aftermath of any disaster, a significant number of individuals will be injured and/or displaced.Many of them may still be living with the trauma they have encountered, including loss of loved ones. Affected individuals may also be without food or other essential items.They might be waiting in temporary shelters, with no idea what to do next. Some might need immediate medical attention, while the disaster aftermath environment also creates ideal breeding grounds for possible epidemics. Charged with leading the response, authorities may find themselves with limited resources and without any comprehensive plans to use them or to find more. They often need the help of a third party, which can include donors, both institutions and individuals. These institutions may have assistance to offer, but know no means in which they can provide it as they may not have any link with those who are working in the field. The following case studies illustrate how ICT can be used effectively to address such problems in the immediate post-disaster period.

Case Study 1: Sahana Disaster Management System in the Aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and Pakistani Earthquake in 2005[edit | edit source]

Sahana, a free and open source software (FOSS)-based system developed by Lanka Software Foundation, is a suite of web-based applications that provides solutions to the problems arising in a post-disaster situation. The following examples show how Sahana assisted disaster victims during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the Pakistani earthquake the following year.

Example 1: Tracing Missing Persons[edit | edit source]

After a disaster, there are often a large number of individuals missing. It is common to find families scattered and children separated from their parents. Outside relatives and friends, especially those living overseas, naturally want to know the latest information about the condition of their loved ones. The psychological strain on children can be severe and it is essential that they be reunited with their families as soon as possible. One objective of Sahana is to assist victims in connecting with their families and friends as soon as possible. Sahana’s Missing Person Registry is an electronic version of a bulletin board of missing and found people. It can capture information not only on the people missing, but also about those who seek details about the missing, thus increasing their chance of reuniting. Even if the victims or families do not have access to this information themselves, it is quite easy for any authorized NGO or civil society group to connect to the central portal and provide that service in the areas they are working.

Example 2: Coordinating Donor Groups[edit | edit source]

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, there was a massive outpouring of support from international NGOs, local NGOs and community groups. There were at least 300 NGOs working on the same goals, though they used different approaches. In an environment where resources are in short supply, it is essential that response efforts should not be duplicated. Otherwise, such duplication can result in issues such as congested supply routes, competition between organizations, double vaccinations and saturation of support provided to some areas while other affected areas are neglected. Consequently, goodwill can be lost. This coordination task is too much for an authorized emergency controller to handle manually. An ICT solution can thus be the ideal solution. For instance, an electronic organization registry can help immensely. It can effectively track who is doing what, where, when and, more importantly, whether there are areas in which services are not adequate. This awareness can enable volunteers and organizations to distribute themselves evenly across affected regions. Sahana has developed such an organization registry. It keeps track of all the relief organizations and civil society groups working in the disaster region. It captures information on both the places where they are active and the range of services they are providing in each area to ensure that there is no overlap.

Example 3: Recording the Locations of Temporary Camps and Shelters[edit | edit source]

In a disaster situation, there are usually no pre-planned locations for camps and shelters. A temporary shelter or camp can be anywhere and can range in size from a large government-maintained camp to an individual house. Due to these differences, it is necessary to record the locations and populations of all camps. This is paramount to distributing aid effectively and ensuring that no affected areas are inadvertently ignored. A sub-application of the Sahana system keeps track of the location of all the camps in the region. It also records basic data on the facilities they might have and the number of people in them. If necessary it can provide a GIS view to plot the location of the camps in the affected area (De Silva, undated).

Case Study : Use of Internet in the Aftermath of the 1999 Earthquake in Turkey[edit | edit source]

On 17 August 1999, a major earthquake caught people off guard in Izmit, Turkey, resulting in 15,000 deaths. A second earthquake occurred on 12 November of the same year in Duzce, claiming 1,000 lives. In addition to these casualties, almost twice as many people were displaced as a result of both events. A total of 120,000 houses were damaged beyond repair while 50,000 houses were partially damaged. During the Izmit earthquake, telecommunications infrastructure was so extensively damaged that it was impossible to access emergency services. The use of public phones was almost impossible, while mobile phone networks were operating with reduced bandwidth. In addition, many of the microwave repeaters mounted on apartment buildings had been damaged during the quake. In this situation, Internet was the only possible medium that could connect the affected areas to the outside world. Several Internet applications were used in the post-disaster response, mainly in two key areas: coordination of aid disbursement and finding information about missing people. Due to system disruption, donors often found themselves acting as the distributors of aid as well, thus, the Internet proved a valuable resource. NGOs played a central role in the provision of discussion lists for the coordination of donations so that donors could find the most in need, identify what they were in need of, and in some cases, determine how to get there. Internet was also used to provide information regarding the whereabouts of missing family members. For example, many organizations formed ‘message lines’, which acted as a database of people found, their condition or the degree of damage to the region in which relatives lived (Zincir-Heywood & Heywood, 2000). The importance of information security and privacy can never be underestimated in ICT-based humanitarian systems. In these cases, data privacy is not just a matter of encryption, it can also be a matter of life and death. If data falls into the wrong hands, it can result in rape and sexual harassment, child and female trafficking, child soldier recruits, prostitution and even ethnic cleansing. This is especially the case when a disaster occurs in an ethno-politically volatile region, where the technology and frameworks conceptualized and implemented need to be deeply cognizant of ground realities and tensions between ethnic groups, factions and non-state actors.

Case Study 3: UNOSAT’s Role in Disaster Response During the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami [6] [edit | edit source]

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) provides the international community and developing countries with enhanced access to satellite imagery and GIS services. These tools are used mainly in humanitarian relief, disaster prevention and post-crisis reconstruction. UNOSAT also acquires satellite images from all commercial providers.

UNOSAT provides services on:

  • Image processing;
  • Map production;
  • Methodological guidance;
  • Technical assistance; and
  • Training.

The UNOSAT core team consists of UN fieldworkers as well as satellite imagery experts, geographers, database programmers and Internet communication specialists. This unique combination gives UNOSAT the ability to understand the needs of the users and to provide them with suitable, tailored solutions. UNOSAT has been active during many recent disasters.When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on 26 December 2004, UNOSAT provided an immediate overview of the situation prior to triggering the International Charter Space and Major Disasters the day after. UNOSAT immediately created regional maps of potential impact and more focused maps of the areas reported to be heavily affected in the first days after the disaster. The first UNOSAT map was on-line and distributed to field users on 29 December 2004. Satellite image analyses and map production provided UN colleagues and the international humanitarian community with regional and local damage assessment maps using a wide range of satellite sensors.The Imagery Bank was on-line as of 14 January 2005 with a large amount of free satellite data obtained through the Charter and the US Government.Currently,over 670 raw satellite images and over 200,000 tsunami maps are available on its website at http://unosat.web.cern.ch/unosat.

Box 4: Sarvodaya.org in the Aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004

Box 5: Blogs and Tsunami Response