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Harnessing ICT systems for managing natural disaster

04 November 2009

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The power of ICT in engaging ordinary people to channelise information will bridge the gap between help-seeker and help-giver, writes Aparna Ray. Online database and community-based ICT systems can greatly minimise emergency response time.

What is disaster management? What are the various stages that it involves? The terminology may differ depending on where you are.

In New Zealand, for example, you would be talking of the 4R’s, namely Readiness, Response, Recovery and Reduction. In other places, such as India, it could be Preparedness, Response, Recovery and Mitigation.

Whatever the terminology, today it is an undeniable truth that the need of the hour is effective disaster management and preparation for a growing incidence, worldwide, of different forms of natural disasters.

In a series of posts, we shall trace and examine the increasing role and impact of ICTs in the area of disaster management.

Nobel Laureate R.K. Pachauri, while addressing the 5th convocation of the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DA-IICT) in January 2009, highlighted the need for ICTs in dealing with natural disasters and other weather-related events that pose a threat to human life and property.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the Telecom World 2009 in Geneva, also highlighted the role of ICTs in addressing key issues, including natural disaster reduction.

The UN Secretary-General’s statement echoes the paradigm shift in Disaster Management mentioned in the 2005 presentation by Sujit Mohanty, namely:

  • From relief and recovery to risk & vulnerability management;
  • Introducing culture of preparedness at all levels
    Strengthen decentralised response capacity in the country;
  • Empowerment of vulnerable groups and ensuring livelihoods;
  • Learning from past disasters.

In the aftermaths of large-scale natural calamities such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the world was forced to wake up to the need for coordinated and collaborative harnessing of the power of ICT systems in managing natural disasters.

Paul Currion in goes on to talk about the “first responders of the wired world”, netizens who spring to action to fill in information gaps that the governments of the respective countries and even the traditional media often struggle to fill.

However, given the high influx of information post-Katrina, it was soon apparent that multiple data streams would be more effective if they were collated, consolidated and served from a more centralised platform. Thus we saw initiatives such as the Katrina PeopleFinder Project and the Katrina Help Wiki come into play.

"In India, the 2004 tsunami was a clarion call for the government, NGOs and the civil society to effect a paradigm shift"

In this context, it would not be unfair to say that the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami (SEA-EAT) blog, set up during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, was a trendsetter of sorts–the first project of its kind that demonstrated the power of engaging ordinary people effectively to channel information in order to bridge the gap between those who needed help and those who had help to offer.

While the SEA-EAT blog focused on “keeping the information flowing”, the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System in Sri Lanka functioned as a more structured, holistic system that helped manage the large scale of the disaster of 2004.

The project was deployed by the Sri Lankan government's Center of National Operations (CNO) which included the Center of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA).

Generalised later for global use, Sahana has now grown to become a globally recognised project with deployments in many other disasters such as the South Asian earthquake in Pakistan (2005), Southern Leyte Mudslide Disaster in Phillipines (2006), the Jogjarkata Earthquake in Indonesia (2006), the Peru Earthquake (2007), the Myanmar Cyclone (2008), etc.

In 2005, Michael Gurstein of the New Jersey Institute of Technology wrote his reflections on the web-based initiatives and what he perceived as the need gaps in these situations:

In India, the 2004 tsunami was a clarion call for the government, NGOs and the civil society to effect a paradigm shift and realise that preparedness was the key to minimising the impact of natural disasters.

To enable better planning and preparedness, the India Disaster Resource Network [] was set up as a National initiative under the Govt. of India-UNDP DRM programme in collaboration with National Informatics Center, Government of India. The task of this Network was to create an online database for capturing the countrywide inventory of equipment and skilled human resources available for emergency response.

The role of this ambitious, yet comprehensive database would be to help minimise emergency response time through effective decision-making on mobilisation of human & material resources.

The project was to ensure systematic data collection & collation from government line departments, public sector units, the corporate sector, etc at the district level. Other initiatives launched were:

  • The Disaster Inventory Database (implemented in Orissa) that would allow vulnerability analysis through longitudinal study of geo-referenced inventories of local level data of past disasters (small, medium and large-scale);
  • Community Contingency plans based on GIS technology that enable the visual presentation of critical data by location that can be used for coordination and implementation of relief efforts;
  • Development of communications infrastructure to ensure 100% coverage of disaster prone areas through satellite and ISDN linkages;
  • Community based ICT systems and;
  • Disaster/ incident surveillance system that will allow for quick, smooth, seamless data capturing and disseminating facilities.


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