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Technology Takes Disaster Response to New Level

16 Nov 2015 by Susie Steckner

Technology is constantly evolving — not unlike a living organism. It isn’t static. It isn’t constant. That makes it disruptive. Businesses, even niche businesses, often forget to, or choose not to, evolve with technology and are turned upside down — because their products, their policies, their customer interface becomes, simply put, outdated. We live in a consumer-driven world, and we are often drawn to technology everything — from convenience to novelty. This is Insight’s Disruptive Technology series. We will be addressing how technology enters an industry and does exactly that — disrupts.

Advances in technology have dramatically changed the way emergency responders manage crisis situations.

More and more, government agencies, humanitarian organizations and nonprofit groups are relying on crowdsourced disaster response, turning to online mapping, social media, mobile apps, SMS and more. Teams are leveraging technology for disasters of all scales, whether an Ebola outbreak in West Africa or a hurricane on the East Coast.

The result: streamlined operations, greater data collection and the ability to instantly connect with people in need. 

“Social media and technology allow us to reach more people more quickly during disasters, when they need accurate, timely and authoritative information that helps ensure the protection of their life or livelihood,” says Shayne Adamski, senior manager of digital engagement for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“With one click of the mouse, or one swipe on a smartphone’s screen, a message is capable of being spread to thousands of people and have a tangible impact.”

Tools of the trade

Tech innovations are reshaping relief efforts in myriad ways around the world. Here’s a sampling of game-changing efforts:

Online mapping — The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) puts up-to-date online maps in the hands of emergency responders. When a crisis hits anywhere in the world, the team rallies its network of volunteers to create online maps that help responders reach those in need. From an earthquake in Afghanistan to Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, the maps are providing crucial resources during disasters.

Mobile apps — The proliferation of mobile devices has spawned apps that are helping reach more people in need and providing preparedness education. For instance, FEMA’s mobile app allows users to receive alerts from the National Weather Service, maps of disaster resources, information about applying for disaster assistance, safety tips and more. Users can upload and share photos of damage and recovery efforts. StormPins harnesses the power of social media, connecting communities and their citizens to the location of severe weather, traffic and crime.

Crowdsourcing software — When Liberia suffered a devastating Ebola outbreak, Ushahidi, crowdsourcing software developed in Kenya, played a crucial role in helping stem the tide of the epidemic. First, members of the public phoned in details about possible Ebola cases to an emergency dispatch unit. Then, volunteers input that information into the Ushahidi system. This allowed health officials to review information in real time for better understanding of where the outbreak was concentrated, where people were receiving treatment and where supplies should be directed.

Social media — Social media is now the go-to for communicating information quickly and broadly, as well as a vital source for data collection. MicroMappers, for instance, uses volunteers to sort through social media flowing from disaster zones. The information —  someone requesting help, a photo showing a devastated area — can be used in real time by government and relief agencies. After a devastating typhoon in the Philippines in 2013, the information proved critical, says Andrej Verity of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). To give relief workers a better picture of the overall crisis, he sent out a real-time map created with MicroMappers data that detailed where people needed help and where the devastation was the greatest.

Messaging — Using FEMA’s text message short code — 43362 or 4FEMA — people can search for disaster recovery centers and shelters. During the height of Hurricane Sandy, more than 10,000 requests poured in during a single day from people searching for shelter locations within a specific zip code.

Websites — Through the American Red Cross Safe and Well site, people are communicating more easily after a disaster. Users can register themselves as “safe and well” and also search for loved ones.

Planning for the future

Technology is also playing a vital role in better preparing communities around the globe for disasters.

Through the Global Resilience Challenge, teams around the world are working to transform humanitarian and development assistance, weaving technology throughout their solutions.

For instance, the Trans African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory is focused on building an early-warning weather system across vulnerable areas of Uganda. Tapping into the prevalence of cell phones, the team plans to partner with mobile operators and the Ugandan National Meteorological Authority to provide low-cost, on-demand access to weather alerts for more than 16 million Ugandan cell-phone users and free access to all 8 million Airtel subscribers.

The Digital Humanitarian Network is working to leverage digital networks and, in turn, to enhance and grow humanitarian responses to crises around the world. It connects volunteer technology organizations that provide information-based response and relief services with formal response organizations, bolstering a range of relief efforts.