Harnessing the power of hi-tech is a key way to reduce disaster risk
By Jonathan Fowler
YEREVAN, 16 December 2016 – Hi-tech tools are a powerful means to reduce the impacts of hazards and enable communities to recover faster if disaster strikes, experts at an international risk and development conference said this week.
From software that maps recovery projects, to standalone servers that can provide critical web-based information when networks go down, smart solutions were showcased at the 4th International Conference on Public Awareness as a Cornerstone of Disaster Risk Reduction and Sustainable Development.
“Information technology can be like the river irrigating our field, making us prepared,” said Mr. Nikolay Grigoryan, Deputy Head of the Rescue Service at host country Armenia’s Ministry of Territorial Administration and Emergency Situations.
The two-day meeting in Armenia’s capital Yerevan wrapped up on Wednesday, after in-depth discussions between dozens of policymakers, emergency service staff, entrepreneurs and UN officials.
“It’s very important to raise the level of awareness. And the hi-tech sphere plays a very important role in solving the problems faced by the world. The aim is to have as few losses, both human and economic, as possible,” said tech session chair Mr. Hayk Chobanyan, from Armenia’s Union of Information Technology Enterprises.
Armenia has tragic experience of natural hazards, having suffered a massive earthquake in 1988, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. The disaster, which claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, came three years after a devastating quake in Mexico. Both events were triggers for a gradual shift in perspective on disasters, away from seeing them purely as an issue of relief aid to a risk-based approach that seeks to curb the impact of hazards before they even strike.
That is the philosophy of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year blueprint that was adopted by the international community in 2015 and is part of the wider global package of agreements on sustainable development.
The roles of the science, technology and private sectors in reducing disaster risk are spotlighted in the Sendai Framework, and their members are playing their part with gusto.
Ms. Hasmik Martirosyan, Chief Operating Officer at Synergy International Systems, explained the functions of the US-based company’s crisis management information system, which was created in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It tracks disaster recovery funding and actions in order to align them with the priorities of affected countries.
“The system captures pre-disaster data, damage, supply, recovery and reconstruction,” she said.
One of the key principles of the Sendai Framework is that it’s crucial to “build back better”, learning lessons from past failings in order to reduce the risk of a repeat disaster.
The company’s bespoke software packages have been used to assess the situation in Indonesia, Maldives, Thailand and Sri Lanka after the 2004 disaster, as well as Pakistan and Haiti after their earthquakes of 2005 and 2010 respectively, Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in countries including Afghanistan and Iraq.
Using online, offline and smartphone app data capture, the system also enables the public to log the GPS coordinates of damage sites and risk zones, and lets different players upload and communicate data amongst themselves to smooth their work.
“It’s also possible to inform citizens about an upcoming event,” noted Ms. Martirosyan.
The power of data-sourcing strikes a chord with Mr. Hitoshi Baba, Senior Adviser at the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
In April this year when a series of earthquakes struck Kumamoto in southwest Japan, he was far away working in Colombia, but was able to launch a drive to craft maps of damage and risk that were vital to inform people on the ground.
“There’s a lot of big data available. And using that big data, I could manage in Colombia. And because the data is open, everyone could join in. All you need is a system that can verify the credibility of the data,” he said.
The desire to provide reliable information when networks go down was the driving force for Canadian-rooted Wicastr – the brainchild of founder Mr. Armin Saidi what he jokingly described as “three geeks”, himself included.
Established in 2013, the company has built a portable server with a one-terabyte hard disk that offers wifi access, connects up to 300 users per device in a three-kilometre radius, and can run with solar panels.
“The idea is that we’re able to create instant communications networks anywhere without dependency on any IT skills or IT requirements. People who connect just need a wifi-enabled device and a browser. It creates a local cloud that provides access to any web server. Basically, we’re building an offline Internet,” Mr. Saidi explained.
It’s also built to withstand harsh conditions.
“We come from Canada. We had to make sure it would work in the cold. It works in a desert. It works anywhere. And it’s easy to deploy and manage,” he said.
The server can be pre-positioned, pre-loaded with basic web-based details of where to get food and shelter, and updated with information such as survivor lists, all of which helps lessen the impact of a hazard and to speed recovery.