[Photo: An aerial view of a house in Gilchrist, Texas, that survived the destruction of Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Courtesy of Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA.]
Natural disasters are becoming more frequent, growing more severe and affecting more people than ever before. The reasons vary but include climate change, population growth and shifting habitation patterns. According to a statement released from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the United Nations in January 2009, the average number of natural disasters reported each year increased more than 60 percent from 2003 to 2005, compared with 1996 to 1998. The Worldwatch Institute reported that in 2007 alone there were 874 weather-related disasters worldwide, a 13 percent increase over 2006 and the highest number since systematic record keeping began in 1974.
As a result, developing the tools, processes and best practices to manage natural disasters more effectively is becoming an increasingly urgent global priority. Effective disaster management or disaster response can be defined as providing the technology, tools and practices that enable disaster response organizations to systematically manage information from multiple sources and collaborate effectively to assist survivors, mitigate damage and help communities rebuild.
Before organizations can improve their disaster response capabilities with new technology and training, they must have a clear idea of the problems they are trying to solve and have processes and practices in place to address the problems. Ongoing challenges in disaster management — such as cross-border issues when disasters affect more than one country, or the need to normalize data so that critical information can be quickly communicated, understood and acted upon — reinforce the need for such clarity and structure.
Another challenge to the effectiveness of disaster management and recovery is sharing information across organizations hampered by a lack of interoperability. In a disaster management situation, information is widely distributed and owned by different organizations, critical data is maintained in disparate systems that often don’t interoperate well, and there are no common standards to enable organizations to efficiently organize and share their resources during response operations. To complicate matters, disaster management teams may be dealing with a badly damaged infrastructure making information sharing nearly impossible.
Another fundamental challenge is the need to automate manual records for disaster response and humanitarian assistance organizations, which is just as important as, if somewhat less glamorous than, other critical issues affecting their readiness. True interoperability is about connecting people, data and diverse processes and organizations, which requires not only flexible technology and accepted standards, but also the fewest possible bureaucratic and regulatory barriers.
In many countries, the people and organizations that work in disaster management also have responsibilities related to national security. The processes and technology solutions they use for critical infrastructure protection can also be adapted for disaster management. These responders increasingly rely on information and communications technology (ICT) systems that can streamline knowledge sharing, situational analysis and optimize collaboration among organizations. ICT can help reduce the loss of life and property, reunite families and alleviate human suffering by providing first responders with the tools for effective communication and collaboration to overcome challenges posed by distance, diverse languages, cultural differences, geographic barriers, international borders and damaged infrastructure.
Organizations that are engaged in disaster management need technology solutions that will enable them to provide lifesaving response and recovery assistance to the people who need their help when disasters strike. Increasingly disaster management organizations look for applications that are industry-proven, robust, cost-effective, interoperable and, in some cases, able to operate with limited or intermittent connectivity and various levels of network capacity. When considering disaster management solutions, it’s important to look for the following capabilities and benefits:
Change occurs rapidly in disaster management. Mandatory policies and procedures frequently require the modification of existing systems. The ability to rapidly adapt applications to keep pace with evolving situations benefits response organizations, and the people who depend on them, while preserving their IT investments.
Disaster response organizations must systematically manage information from multiple sources and collaborate effectively to assist survivors, mitigate damage and help communities rebuild. A growing number of these responders and governments around the world increasingly rely on ICT systems that can streamline knowledge sharing, situational analysis and collaboration.
Response organizations are using ICT to predict and prepare for natural disasters in an effort to prevent them from becoming large-scale human tragedies. For example, disaster management officials are improving their situational awareness by using GIS and geospatial imaging technology to track hurricanes, analyze data, and create models that enable them to predict the storm’s destructive force and test different response scenarios. They can then use communications and collaboration technology to coordinate massive evacuations and other strategies, and to move people out of harm’s way before the hurricane hits.
By enabling situational awareness and knowledge sharing, ICT can help governments and humanitarian-assistance organizations facilitate their relief services; speed the donation and distribution of food, medical supplies and other vital resources; and provide access to more complete and accurate information as communities and families work to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
During the next few years, it’s anticipated that geospatial and mapping technologies will become increasingly important, as they enable first responders to increase situational awareness and provide new ways to display and analyze information. Many technology companies are already building these technologies into their solutions. Developers will also find new ways to use mobile technology and Web portals to create innovative disaster management solutions that streamline operations and increase the efficiency of response organizations. As a result of these efforts and technologies, many organizations are able to streamline their operations, make more efficient use of their resources and respond more quickly to natural disasters.
As communities and economies move from responding to a natural disaster to following the longer road of recovery, those involved have an opportunity to ensure that investments are designed for long-term sustainability and innovation. This requires a degree of planning and reconstruction that’s designed not only to rebuild a community to what it was before, by revitalizing the culture and core of what enabled it to thrive in the past, but also to infuse new concepts of innovation and resiliency that will increase economic vitality.
For long-term disaster recovery, it’s important to focus on driving innovation and resiliency through new and creative uses of ICT. It has been proven that technology and processes are most effective when they are part of or similar to one’s day-to-day operational experience. This is not to say that unique solutions won’t be used to manage specific issues, but the goal is for organizations to be familiar with tools and solutions related to disaster management before disasters occur. By extending the same information and communications tools that people use every day, it will help reduce training time and organizations can be prepared to respond more effectively during times of crisis.
The private sector, public sector and nongovernmental organization community must work together to deploy technology solutions in the most effective manner, and to ensure that solutions are appropriate, sustainable and designed to achieve the best possible results. Public and private sectors face challenges to expand technology-based solutions that increase personnel efficiency, effectiveness, knowledge and flexibility when responding to disasters and crisis situations. In areas prone to natural disasters, such as the Asia-Pacific region, interest is growing in the potential for employing commercial, off-the-shelf software-based simulations for enhanced learning using virtual environments.
Lastly, recovery of the business community after a natural disaster should be a high priority. The vitality of the business community is a critical dependency for successful economic and social recovery from a disaster. One of the reasons for the slow recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was the struggle to revitalize the small-business community. Small and medium-sized businesses are essential for sustaining a returning population in an area hit hard by a disaster.
Moreover, technology can be a powerful force that opens exciting opportunities for organizations to better achieve their missions and accelerate their impact.
When disasters occur anywhere in the world, the safety of people in the affected areas depends on first responders being prepared and then staying connected and in close collaboration 24 hours a day, until the crisis is resolved.
The increasing impact of natural disasters and other crisis management situations is prompting the creation of a new generation of ICT solutions that can enhance disaster preparedness, response and recovery. Governments and response organizations are looking beyond traditional telecommunications means to explore the robust and incredibly diverse offerings that the ICT sector can bring to a crisis-response situation.
However, despite recent advances in using ICT for disaster response and humanitarian assistance, many desirable solutions do not yet exist. More solutions need to be developed to help organizations create and manage response resources and infrastructure between disasters, while others will focus on helping organizations learn from their experiences and capture knowledge that can be used for learning and better planning, and built into training models.
Global disaster management and humanitarian assistance requires a multifaceted approach that leverages the skills, resources and commitments of corporations, government agencies, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and individuals.
Kris Teutsch is director of the National Security Group at Microsoft Federal.