Technology to assess disaster damage

May 16, 2018

Even in this era of social media and digital technology, the tools most often used to assess disasters are…paper and pencils. With luck and at least a few months, the understandable part of those handwritten questionnaires is converted in some sort of file that, only very rarely, is put together and analyzed on time to inform recovery programmes.

Accurate data is scarce in many common socio-economic situations. But reliable information when a disaster strikes is as rare as it is important. Such information helps public officials determine what areas need the most help and when, and how to apportion resources to fulfil the demand.

Natural disasters, including frequent hurricanes and destructive earthquakes, tend to impose large damages to structures.

Dominica and Barbuda, two small islands in the Caribbean hit by category 5 hurricanes in September 2017, have made a difference that can be the beginning of a revolution in disaster recovery.

Governments from both countries, with the support of UNDP, have conducted comprehensive Building Damage Assessments using new technologies. Millions of georeferenced data fields—including photos of the structures and household information—have been gathered by teams of engineers and trained inspectors. All information is assembled, filtered and analyzed in real-time and made available immediately online.

Using UNDP’s experience in other recovery situations, and with the technical assistance of Engineers Without Borders, recovery teams have elaborated standard questionnaires that are transformed into an app thanks to a partnership with Microsoft. Engineers, architects, community representatives and volunteers are trained in the methodology and use of the technology so information is rapidly gathered in field visits.

This methodology and the use of innovative technologies allow inspection teams to assess a building in an average time of seven minutes. All the structures in Barbuda were assessed in five days, while in Dominica 30 teams inspected almost 30,000 structures throughout the country.

Using lessons learned from this pioneer tool, UNDP is now working to expand use of these assessment tools worldwide, so that countries can recover faster from disaster.