Disaster resilience? There’s an app for that.
18 Mar 2015 by Patrick Grémillet, Partnership Advisor, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction
Mobile phones are helping revolutionize the way we protect communities from disasters.
While more traditional measures, such as earthquake-resilient buildings and early warning broadcasts, will continue to be the hallmark of disaster risk reduction, innovations in technology are offering new ways to strengthen resilience.
From simple SMS-style early warning messages to full touch-screen enabled ‘hazard maps,’ mobile technologies connect users to real-time disaster info. These innovations provide new ways of sharing life-saving information, but also help ‘crowd-source’ disaster info, allowing users to receive and update hazard-related information in real-time.
Such technology has already had impressive results. For example, after the devastating 9.0 earthquake struck the coast of Japan in 2011, 120,000 residents in the Philippines’ exposed coastal communities received warnings of a possible tsunami on their mobile phones. While the tsunami fortunately did not materialize in the Philippines, some 150 coastal districts were nonetheless successfully evacuated.
Countries around the world are using technology to raise awareness about disaster threats and create cultures of action. In Uzbekistan, UNDP helped create a mobile app in Uzbek and Russian that can transmit emergency information from the Ministry of Emergency Situations to at-risk communities.
“It’s really easy to use,” says Vasko Popovski, UNDP’s Project Manager for Disaster and Climate Risks and designer of the app. “You can find details on any hazardous event in the country, whether it’s landslide, flood, storm or anything else that could be considered dangerous. Before now, [people] were mostly getting information about dangers and hazardous events through newspapers and the television, but these aren’t the most relevant and immediate channels anymore.”
In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNDP worked with the Crisis Management Centre to create an app that allowed emergency service bodies to quickly update information as well as transmit early warnings. When major flooding hit the country in 2013, communities were updated on the severity of the storm, safety precautions to be taken and the progress of relief efforts. Users were able to consult customized maps, and see how their area was likely to be affected.
Such technologies are especially useful for countries and regions that are remote or scattered geographically. Indonesia, a country of 230 million people that occupies three separate time zones, has channeled its expertise in evidence-based information systems, planning and monitoring to create disaster-related mobile apps that can reach its far-flung population. UNDP worked with the National Disaster Management Agency to establish a method of rapidly collecting and analyzing disaster data, which can be used instantly to inform disaster relief efforts.
The private sector, as well as universities and civil society, have contributed their expertise to these projects. The Turkish mobile company Turkcell, for example, has played an important role in transmitting SOS messages in the wake of recent earthquakes in Turkey, ensuring that citizens can be reached quickly and efficiently. There are valuable opportunities for public-private partnerships, with benefits to all involved.
It is clear that mobile communications, smart phones, and apps will lead to significant changes in how we do disaster risk reduction. With more investments in data collection, which can be translated into user-friendly information, it is likely that future generations will become more risk-aware and resilient.