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Oceans of data, islands of databases

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Man in his shopRisk-informed recovery programmes respond to the unique development challenges of island countries like Vanuatu, which was hit by Cyclone Pam in March 2016. UNDP Photo

This post is part of a series from UNDP experts sharing their views and experiences in the lead up to the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in May and the World Reconstruction Conference in June.

I am currently in the Solomon Islands, on my second mission in the Pacific Islands this year, and I am now certain that I will be back in Papua New Guinea in less than a month.  Since Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Cyclone Winston in Fiji (2015/2016), my engagement as UNDP advisor on disaster risk reduction and recovery in the Pacific has multiplied. For UNDP colleagues based in the Pacific, I hear that there has not been any pause in crisis response since 2014.

What does this trend mean? What do we foresee in the future? Where do we get the information to guide our organization’s strategy and programmes?

In the last three years, disaster impact in the Pacific Island Countries has amplified. Many countries were at the centre of the El Nino-induced extreme weather events, which spawned severe cyclones in specific locations, while reducing rainfall and causing extensive socio-economic droughts in others.

When these disasters occur, we are faced with a cruel reality. Helping develop a recovery programme such as my current mission in the Solomon Islands, which was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in December 2016, exposes the unique development challenges of island countries.

Small populations are spread across many islands and vast distances. Livelihoods are at subsistence level and are far away from major markets. Government decision-makers for allocation of public services and rebuilding of damaged facilities are often faced with multiple, competing priorities and scarce resources.

Sadly, the future is gloomy. These small island communities are at the forefront of climate change and its impacts. They will be disproportionately affected by climate change.

What, then, is possible? The future of these communities will not solely rely on trends of natural hazards and climate change. The severity of these impacts will also largely depend on the socio-economic choices made by countries.

Inclusive development that involves safety nets, resilient infrastructure and reduced ecosystem decline can mitigate disasters and climate change impacts, especially on the poorest. This will require stronger governance that uses data and evidence to guide different decision frameworks where development is risk-informed.

Often, I hear complaints that data and evidence related to risk are not available when making development decisions. During my mission, I participated in discussions about an urgent measure to relocate hospitals away from coastal hazards – a top government priority in the Solomon Islands. Yet, the business case will require the appropriate level of hazard assessment.

There are plenty of climate change models, but downscaling these in widely dispersed islands produces large disparities. Available data from various sectors that describe vulnerabilities are not shared. Databases exist but sectors work in siloes, cut off from one another. Data, when disasters happen, are difficult to collect. Yet, the entire global community is experiencing an unprecedented data revolution, where more data is becoming available for free and accessing data does not require a computer. It is the paradox of too much information available while challenges persist in making it useful.

Data availability is like the vast Pacific Ocean that I see from my hotel in Honiara. The islands on the horizon and distances in between are like the disconnect between various databases. In my work with UNDP, enhancing the data ecosystem required for risk-management decisions is being pursued as a transformative opportunity. It is for these reasons that UNDP established the Global Centre for Disaster Statistics (GCDS) in partnership with Tohoku University. With support from Fujitsu Inc., a world cloud statistics capacity devoted to disaster-related data is under development. This will help countries store, share, analyze and disseminate risk information. It is a disruptive innovation where structured databases are linked with non-structured databases like social media and other digital sources.

Yet, these digital technologies cannot be successful if we don’t address the more important analogue components of strengthening risk governance. Success can be achieved if we are able to support countries using this information to make development choices that are best for them. In this role, we are consistently guided by the notion that UNDP works with people and organizations with data – not just with computers and ICT systems.

Solomon Islands blog series Small island development states Disaster risk reduction Crisis response Climate change Sanny Jegillos Disaster risk management Disaster recovery Blog post