– by ORKASH Labs, Copyright: ORKASH Services Pvt Ltd

Owing to its unique geo- climatic conditions, India’s has high vulnerabilities posed by national disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides. According to a Ministry of Home Affairs report, about 60 % of the landmass in India is prone to earthquakes, 12 % is prone to floods; about 8% of the total area is prone to cyclones.

Large scale disasters typically warrant two stages of response. An initial stage of information collation which enables emergence of an accurate picture, on the scale and geographic spread of the disaster. Thereafter, the stage of critical co-ordination between various state/private agencies, to provide rescue and relief.  Building blocks for the needed technology architecture is depicted in the picture below.

Disaster Management

Overcoming Opaqueness

Studies have shown that in most disasters a bulk of relief material and response capabilities invariably reside within or near the disaster zone, however, invariably reaches the victims with a time lag. Reason is that the opaqueness induced by  disaster is overwhelming, almost like the ‘Fog of War’ experienced during intense military operations. Lots of information and data exists but is unearthed only with time, by which time an earthquake ( for example)  has resulted in large scale fires and then may easily mutate into an epidemic due to shortage of clean drinking water.  Break down of law and order and attendant crimes may further delay the emergence of an accurate assessment of the disaster.

Hence, given the certainty in paucity of accurate information post disaster, the rapid creation of robust communication grids, and command and control network remains the existential challenge post a disaster. Core of such a structure needs to be an integrated net centric platform for operations planning, sourcing collective intelligence/ data, contingency planning, managing the deployment and redeployment of rescue, relief and rehabilitation, to enable a faster and efficient response to disasters.

In this context, Social Media is a versatile mean for information exchange.  Take the case of Uttarakhand floods. Many Facebook pages  became a crucial source of information. Even Twitter proved to be pretty helpful as the hashtags like #UttarakhandHelp were on the top of the trending topic list. It is also estimated that Rs 18 Crore was collected through online medium towards Prime Minister’s relief fund for Uttarakhand disaster relief, based on efforts over social media.

Most importantly, social media creates an adhoc community of ‘first responders’ who initiate and spread information and awareness, that mitigates loss of life and property. Their response is not restricted by knowledge of distress frequencies on HF /VHF or by government telephone/fax numbers.  An instant “ Stranded at Balaipur in front of State Bank building.Water gushing. Grim chances”, is enough for any twitter follower or FB friend to get into the rescue act or reach out to emergency services.

Situational Awareness

During the Thailand floods of 2011, social media had surpassed every other means of communication as a source of information. The floods were perhaps the country’s worst disasters, wherein flooding which commenced in July, lasted until December. Over 13 million people were impacted, with more than 800 deaths, with an estimate of $45 billion in terms of economic damage. As per the study titled ‘Role of Twitter during a natural disaster: Case study of 2011 Thai Flood’ , the tweets of Thai flood were classified into 5 categories:

  • Situational Announcements/ Alerts: Tweets about up-to-date situational and location-based information related to the flood such as water levels, traffic conditions and road conditions in certain areas
  • Support Announcements: Tweets about free parking availability, free emergency survival kits distribution and free consulting services for home repair, etc.
  • Requests for Assistance: Tweets requesting rescue and any types of aid; such as food, water, medical supplies, volunteers or transportation.
  • Requests for Information: Tweets including general inquiries related to the flood and flood relief such as inquiries for telephone numbers of relevant authorities, regarding the current situation in specific locations and about flood damage compensation.
  • Other: Tweets including all other messages, such as comments, complaints and opinions.

Orkash Technology

Snapshot of ORKASH Technology

Indeed, social media is rapidly evolving due to collaboration between technology and human behaviour. Virtual associations, information sharing and grass-roots rendezvous are empowering individuals during disasters, aiding rescue and relief in an unexpected manner.

Hurricane Sandy which struck the east coast of US in end October 2012, was one of the most voilent natural disasters to strike the North American continent.  Prior and during this mega Hurricane, nicknamed “Superstorm Sandy” , Twitter and Facebook were used extensively by individuals, agencies and utility companies,  to relay information, share evacuation advisories and provide updates on the storm.

Mobilising Public Resources

Even before Hurricane Sandy, New York city’s social media presence attracted 3 million followers across more than 300 city accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc. In addition to managing NYC.gov, the city maintains numerous channels, including Facebook pages, Flickr, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter (in both English and Spanish) and YouTube. Right through the response and recovery phases of Sandy, these platforms provided the city with the means to share information in various formats, thus proving that henceforth social media would be a crucial cog in any disaster management initiative.

Inevitably, social media also became a source for rumours. Information was verified and rumours were dispelled via a variety of tools. As a case in point, when false reports and images began circulating of New York Stock Exchange being under three feet of water, first responder agencies such as the New York City Fire Department posted messages on Twitter and other social media sites to correct misinformation.

Hurricane Sandy

As per data derived from the website www.emergencymgmt.com, the Red Cross pulled more than 2 million posts for review during Hurricane Sandy, choosing specific keyword searches relevant to Red Cross services, such as shelter and emotional support. Thirty-one digital volunteers responded to 2,386 of the reviewed posts. About 229 posts were sent to mass care teams, and 88 resulted in a change in action on ground operations.

Apps and Open Sourced Applications

The American Red Cross also offered a Hurricane App for both iPhone and Android device users to assist in individual recovery.

In fact, Apps are open sourced solutions are being tailor made for disaster management solutions. On the fully interactive Google map, geographical information related to the flooding submitted by official sources and users is aggregated in location pinpoints. During the Uttarakhand floods, Google launched a ‘Person finder’, a portal, where people could type the name of the missing person and through its immense database, Google did the matching and threw up co-relating results.

Without doubt, the challenges confronting Disaster Management in India can get a fillip with use of technology. However, many of the repetitive shortcomings experienced have been linked to organisational structure and multi agency coordination. Take the hypothetical case of a localised earthquake. Chances are that part of cellular network will survive the disaster and harnessing it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster will remain crucial.  However, mobile telecom towers can always be inducted from neighbouring regions not impacted by the disaster. For this action to take place in an expeditious manner, database/ templates of mobile infrastructure would need to be available on a Command and Control portal. Similarly, the locations of hospitals/nursing homes, including their stock of emergency medicines, can be part of the database.

ORKASH’s Integrated Disaster Management and Command & Control Solution has a Social Media Intelligence Module that greatly improves the efficiency of crises management. The solution encompasses Social Media monitoring and mining to improve the situational awareness of crisis managers and by facilitating the bidirectional communication between the public and the emergency managers.

Use of technology allows the processing of large amounts of data, therefore enabling us to collect unbiased conversations from social media (Twitter, Facebook), broadcast media (radio, TV), mobile technologies and citizens directly. In addition, the exchange of information between citizens and emergency managers, or the facilitation of communication between citizens using the know-how gathered, will allow for a timely and effective actuation of people on site. This could be for purposes like additional data collection, organizing help or simply asking people to stay away from a problem area. Coincidentally, the introduction of new structured communication channels takes load off the traditional command & control centre, thereby reducing overload situations during crises. It also helps various government and non-government agencies involved in the disaster response effort to create rapid and flexible channels of communications and information exchange using Social Media networks.

This solution innovates in technological, sociological, ethical and operational aspects and validates its findings by conducting field exercises with emergency management organizations to leverage the increasingly significant role of new communication media in crisis and disaster management and define guidelines and solutions to encourage and valorise the communication between police/law enforcement/first responders and the public, using social media.

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