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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

Chapter 8.5 Communities and technology: choice and innovation

Information and communications technologies

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development

This area of technology for DRR has expanded and developed rapidly in recent years, particularly for mapping, warning and response. Digital data tools, especially geographical information systems, are revolutionising our potential capacity to analyse hazards, risks and vulnerability, and plan for disasters. Disaster planners create extensive databases relating to needs (for example of vulnerable people and their locations) and resources (such as human capacities and emergency equipment). The transport and distribution of relief goods can be monitored through commodity tracking systems.

Technology is central to improving hazard forecasting and early warning systems. For example, high-performance computers and modelling can produce sophisticated long-range or seasonal forecasts for hydro-meteorological hazards; remote sensing from satellites enables emergency planners to track cyclones; automated gauges monitor rainfall and water levels and transmit data to emergency operations centres; information on food prices in local markets provided through SMS text messaging gives indications of crop failures and food shortages. Alerts can be disseminated quickly to large numbers of people through emails, text messaging and social media, complementing more traditional channels such as radio and television, as well as more local means, such as sirens and loudspeakers.

Improved connectivity to the world wide web, the huge growth in mobile telephone use worldwide and the proliferation of various forms of social media have greatly facilitated communications before, during and after disasters. Global Positioning System (GPS) devices record the movements of people and humanitarian goods; satellites can monitor building and environmental damage or mass population displacement. Social media and other digital devices such as smart-phone applications allow people to report on their local conditions after a disaster, helping relief agencies to carry out crisis mapping and rapid needs assessments. The ‘crowdsourcing’ of data from large numbers of affected people is becoming increasingly common in crisis management, supported by online tools such as OpenStreetMap, a project to create a free and open map of the world, which allows data such as hazards, roads and buildings to be entered by volunteers using a range of data sources and information-gathering techniques.+See http://www.openstreetmap.org/about and http://hot.openstreetmap.org/about. Humanitarian and DRR organisations are beginning to set up their own small specialist teams to input, collect, synthesise and disseminate such data, but online volunteers play a major and increasingly important role, particularly during and immediately after disasters. One of the best-known software and data platforms is Ushahidi, a non-profit company which has created interactive information sites for a number of disasters, including the Kenyan election crisis of 2007–2008, the Haiti and Chile earthquakes in 2010 and the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand in 2011.+See http://www.ushahidi.com; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushahidi.

8.5.1 Geographical information systems

Geographical information systems (GIS) are computer-based systems for storing, combining, analysing, modelling and displaying different kinds of spatial data (e.g. about topographical features, hazard locations, areas and structures at risk, location and socio-economic status of vulnerable populations, evacuation routes and shelters, stockpiles of relief goods). Data can be searched, analysed and presented in a variety of ways, according to users’ needs, and in accessible visual forms.

Mapping plays an important role in risk assessment and disaster planning, and GIS data are presented as maps on which different kinds of data can be overlaid: this makes the technology particularly helpful in multi-hazard assessment, for example. Trends as well as current conditions can be viewed and analysed, and new evidence of changes in the environment or human activities can be incorporated. GIS also allows different kinds of evidence – ranging from satellite images to local knowledge gathered through participatory methods – to be integrated.

Use of GIS technology in DRR dates back to the 1980s, but it has grown rapidly in recent years as hardware costs have fallen and software systems have become more user-friendly. An increasing amount of open-source data has also become available (for example Google Earth, which provides free satellite images, and Google Maps, a web-based mapping tool which can integrate data from other web sites: these are commonly used by humanitarian workers in situation assessment).+See https://earth.google.com and https://maps.google.com.

GIS technology can still be relatively sophisticated and expensive for smaller, local agencies, although some open-source software is available; the cost of back-up maintenance and support should also be considered. A certain level of technical skill is required to use the technology and staff will need training in collecting, inputting and analysing data. The temptation to save costs by training only a few people in GIS should be avoided, since travel, illness or job changes may leave an organisation without people who can operate the system. Data collection and entry are time-consuming tasks and hence can be costly. Ideally, GIS should have reliable and extensive data: in reality these may not be available, or it may be difficult to obtain and process them. Datasets also need to be kept up to date. Organisations need to consider how they collect and manage such information. GIS offers the possibility of combining many different kinds of data, be it from satellite images, research studies or participatory risk assessments, but systematic data management of this kind – for project design, priority setting or disaster response – is rare. Partnerships between local-level operational organisations and technical specialists (in universities or research institutes, for example) are one way of overcoming some of these challenges.

Participatory GIS (PGIS) approaches have been used successfully for a number of years. PGIS combines GIS technologies with participatory appraisal to assist communities and other local stakeholders in decision-making, communication and advocacy. The approach has been applied to a range of issues, including land use demarcation and conflicts, collection of local environmental knowledge and monitoring slum conditions (see also Section 8.6: Ownership, control and participation).+For information on PGIS in general, as well as DRR applications, see the Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development (IAPAD) website: http://www.iapad.org. In DRR PGIS is used to identify local knowledge of hazards; to map and assess vulnerability, coping and adaptive strategies; to understand people’s risk perceptions and priorities; for spatial planning, including the siting of shelters and escape routes; and in assessing post-disaster needs.

Case Study 8.4 Building capacities for participatory mapping

Since 2011, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) team has been helping to build up mapping capacities for DRR in Indonesia. The data from the mapping can be used in an open-source GIS platform and software for modelling hazard exposure and risk, which produces disaster impact scenarios for emergency planners and responders (this software, called InaSafe, was developed by Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency and the Australian government, through the Australia–Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction and the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction). The software needs baseline data on features such as critical infrastructure. HOT’s work has focused on training in how to collect and map the relevant data.

The project’s pilot phase ran workshops for students and government officials on mapping roads, buildings and other features in urban and rural areas. The next phase trained teams in six disaster-prone provinces in the tools and techniques for collecting data. Subsequently, students in 13 universities received training in data-gathering and participatory mapping. The project has also created a website where people can obtain resources, read about the project’s aims and contact trainers for further support.

See http://hot.openstreetmap.org/projects/indonesia-0; http://inasafe.org.

GIS needs to be managed sensibly to make the most of its potential. Common operational problems that cause GIS initiatives to fail include:+C. Feldkötter, ‘GIS – What Can Go Wrong?’, in Workshop Proceedings: Application of Resource Information Technologies (GIS/GPS/RIS) in Forest Land & Resources Management. October 18–20, 1999, Hanoi, Vietnam, GTZ, http://www.mekonginfo.org.

  • Underestimating the workload required to input, retrieve and analyse data, and the fact that much of the work is routine and tedious. This can lead to incomplete databases.
  • Inadequate technical facilities (software, hardware, networks), often because the lowest-cost option is chosen.
  • Selection of data based on cost rather than usefulness.
  • Too much time spent playing with systems and software, and on routine tasks, at the expense of practical applications.
  • Lack of systematisation in collecting, inputting and storing data, leading to data sets that are hard to retrieve or do not match well.
  • Inadequate training or staff who are not sufficiently qualified to manage GIS, and a failure to upgrade skills.
  • The risk that individuals with specialist GIS skills will gain power informally within their organisations.
  • Loss of faith in GIS in the light of the practical problems listed above.

GIS should not be expected to provide answers to every question. For example, spatial representation may give only a partial picture of vulnerability because different dimensions of vulnerability operate on quite different scales – for instance, root causes have an impact on a much bigger geographical area or social group than locally unsafe conditions, but both interact to create local vulnerability. At a very local level, GIS may not always be necessary because the problems may not be sufficiently complex to justify a GIS approach. It must be remembered that GIS is a tool for collecting and presenting information, but it is for the users of the technology to analyse that information and reach conclusions about what actions to take as a result.