Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Feb 10, 2017
The availability of big data during disasters, in the hands of technology companies can be analysed both real-time and historically to inform best practices in disaster mitigation and relief.
Social media and disaster preparedness — an ORF-CSIS report Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies organised a workshop on innovation in disaster relief in Mumbai on 23 and 24 January 2017. The conference was sponsored by the US consulate, Mumbai, and brought officials from the US and Indian governments and armed forces, representatives from NGOs and private sector stakeholders who work in disaster preparedness, relief and rehabilitation. The conference was designed as a multistakeholder discussion to understand the capabilities and needs of different sectors — private, public and not for profit and to recommend policy changes required to use technology in capacity building and coordination in disaster relief and response.

US-India partnership

Jennifer Larson, the Deputy Principal Officer at the US Consulate General Mumbai, in her opening remarks at the conference emphasised the importance of using technological tools and cooperation between actors to improve disaster response. Larson praised India for its leadership in disaster relief in the region and India’s swift response during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. She encouraged the growing role of India and spoke of a broad-based partnership between US and India that would feature cooperation on disaster response, including enhanced military-to-military cooperation between the two countries in the form of joint exercises, training, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Issues of access and role of social media

Participants noted that communication systems are the first to get affected during natural disasters and discussed ways of restoring communication in the shortest time possible. Discussions on network resilience were centered on the need for backup energy sources, finding alternatives to traditional telecom architectures, facilitating coordination between telecom providers and first responders and ensuring coordination in military communications. Participants additionally identified the challenge of "digital divide" in countries like India where vast populations do not have access to internet and smartphones. Several technical experts at the discussion suggested the possibility of using tools such as cell broadcast technology, SMS and radios to address the digital gap. All stakeholders acknowledged the growing role of social media in disaster preparedness and relief and agreed on the need to study and analyse data collected by social media companies during times of disasters. Participants further acknowledged that social media is not widely accessible and that there is a challenge of identifying people who are not represented online. Some discussants pointed out that social media must not be the only tool used by the government to reach out to affected people and that various tools exist to cater to different sections of society. Challenges of real-time feedback on social media, spread of misinformation online, accountability to affected populations and donors and community feedback post-disaster were also discussed.

Use of big data in disaster mitigation and relief

Stakeholders acknowledged the increasing availability of big data during disasters, in the hands of technology companies that can be analysed both real-time and historically to inform best practices in disaster mitigation and relief. There was a consensus among discussants that lessons learnt from big data analysis must be institutionalised and made readily available for actors who are active in disaster relief. Participants shared concerns regarding processing vast amounts of data in a reasonable period of time and privacy and security implications of disclosing and sharing data. The dangers of data sets and algorithms reflecting gender and racial bias were discussed. Stakeholders agreed that ethical standards for deploying disaster management applications need to be established. Some experts noted that for data to become inclusive, applications need to become more widely used. As long as applications are opt-in, it is difficult to inform all people and extract representative data. Several participants shared the sentiment that technological solutions alone cannot solve problems in disaster mitigation and response. Some participants warned against the over reliance on technology and the importance of establishing community during disaster response. The need for interdisciplinary research to steer technology for equitable gains was brought out.

Going forward

Stakeholders agreed that governments must play an increased role in long term disaster rehabilitation. The importance of managing relief and having functional disaster management authorities across all states was stressed upon. Participants also agreed on the crucial role that neighbouring states can play during disasters and the need for cooperation between governments, armed forces and NGOs in the neighbourhood. Issues of business continuity during disasters, donor fatigue and the need for financing of innovative solutions in disaster relief were also brought up by stakeholders. Going forward, CSIS will issue a paper on policy recommendations that were made during the conference and ORF will host a website sharing these recommendations. The author is a fellow at ORF.
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Marc Jeuland

Marc Jeuland

Marc Jeuland Associate Professor of Public Policy and Global Health Duke University

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