ICT for Disaster Management, written by Chanuka Wattegama, follows the excellent tradition of e-primers published by the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP). In sum, as with all e-primers, this is an extremely useful publication for the non-expert to grasp the potential of and challenges to the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the prevention, mitigation and preparedness of disasters.
Though Chanuka kindly acknowledges my input into this publication, I can’t remember telling him anything significant that he hadn’t already thought of or covered in the draft that I went through.
I was very pleased to meet up with Chanuka in Malaysia recently during GKP’s GK III conference, where I picked up the final version of the publication. A few points came to mind as I read through this book.
- Chanuka correctly notes that ICTs for disaster warning involve a concert of devices, mechanisms and technologies to alert communities at risk. In mentioning Television (pg. 9) as one such medium, Chanuka fails to mention that their use and effectiveness is almost entirely dependent on electricity. Should there be no electricity or if the grid is brought down by the disaster itself, TV’s are rendered utterly useless.
- On pg. 11, Chanuka mentions the potential of SMS and states that “…SMS works on a different band and can be sent or received even when phone lines are congested. SMS also has another advantage over voice calls in that one message can be sent to a group simultaneously.” While technically accurate and in some cases a proven way to alert others of a disaster / crisis, it seems to be the case that SMSs are also significant affected by network congestion, as was quite clearly brought out in my own experience in attempting to use SMS in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
- On the same page, Chanuka brings out the potential of cell broadcasts for disaster warning. Sri Lanka’s tsunami alert on 13th September 2007 brought this into sharp focus with many SMSs sent and received, but little or no use of cell broadcasts to target messages geo-specifically to vulnerable communites. SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007 is a very interesting article and subsequent discussion, including Prof. Rohan Samarajiva from Lirneasia, that explores this further.
- On pg. 15, Chanuka mentions that “There are no well-known case studies where community radio has been successfully used for disaster warning purposes.” Emphasis mine. There seems to be a large corpus of literature that presents the proven potential of community radio in early warning but apparently little or no case studies and lessons identified from instances where thy were actually used for disaster warning. (also see point on importance of community radio in long-term disaster recovery efforts below)
- Box 3 on pg. 20 mentions Reuters AlertNet but fails to, perhaps because the site was launched just before or after the e-primer was published, Preventionweb, a new initiative by UN/ISDR that is still in the process of being developed aimed to increasing knowledge sharing on disaster risk reduction (DRR) issues, for both the general public – including media and teachers – and DRR specialists.
Also important to record in this context is Alertnet’s own evolution this year (2007) to more fully embrace User Generated Content (USG) such as blogs and web 2.0 features such as easy linking of stories to social networking sites and issue, region, country, search query specific RSS feeds. Further, in 2007, Alertnet launched an interactive global map with information on conflict, food security, sudden disasters and health crises.
- Chanuka uses the Sahana Disaster Management System as his first case study in the section of ICT for Disaster Response. I’m a fan and staunch advocate of Sahana, but feel that much of the debate on ICTs for disaster response within conflict zones or regions facing complex political emergencies (such as the North-East coast of Sri Lanka) simply fail to take into account the complex and highly flammable ethno-political, cultural, communal and conflict dynamics. I have brought this out specifically in the case of Sahana and more generally in Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design.
- In the same section, Chanuka brings out in Example 2 how Sahana helped in coordinating donor action. In this regard, I have often wondered what became of the Donor Assistance Database (DAD), a system that was created and implemented under the now defunct TAFREN to help to better coordinate and monitor post tsunami recovery aid, with the support and funding of the UNDP. It’s been offline for well over a year now – no indication of what happened, how it was used, how effective it was, how much money went into its development as a matter of public record and why it is inaccessible today (a mirror site gives a glimpse of what it looked like).
- Box 5, dealing with blogs and tsunami response, could have been expanded with examples from a multitude of other case studies and sources that clearly demonstrate, as Chanuka rightly points out, the effectiveness of USG and new media such as blogs as an alternative communications medium. For more information in this regard, please read Who’s afraid of citizen journalists?, a chapter I wrote for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book published by the UNDP and TVEAP.
- The section on ICT for Disaster Recovery could have mentioned the impact of community radio in long-term relief and recovery efforts. Many case studies can be found in this regard, for example, the manner in which Internews supported community radio stations in Indonesia and the path-breaking productions of Real Voices Radio with tsunami affected communities and regions in Sri Lanka, again by Internews.
- On pg. 29, Chanuka points to Groove Virtual Office, a programme that InfoShare used extensively for peace and negotiations support operations within the framework of the OneText initiative and also in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. A detailed critique of the pros and cons of the programme, based on our exhaustive field use with multiple actors including local and international relief agencies and political actors after the tsunami can be found here (see pgs. 14 – 20 in particular)
- On pg. 33, Chanuka points to the low ICT penetration in the Asia-Pacific region and goes to say that “With such low penetration levels, it is extremely difficult to establish any effective ICT-based disaster warning system.” Strangely, this observation runs counter to the work presented by Lirneasia (where Chanuka works) on Making Communities Disaster Resilient at the GKP GK III conference. The emphasis at this presentation was on how a range of ICT mechanisms and tools, coupled with disaster preparedness and response plans drawn up by communities, could help even if the majority of those in communities did not have access to ICTs.
Finally, those interested in Chanuka’s publication may also wish to read After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami. This document explores in detail the use of a range of ICTs in the tsunami relief effort that I and InfoShare used in Sri Lanka and addresses the need to create sustainable and culturally sensitive technology / ICT frameworks and mechanisms for long-term relief work and disaster recovery.
Chanuka’s publication is one I can highly recommend for anyone looking for a quick and comprehensive overview on the potential of ICTs for Disaster Management and it’s availability as an APDIP Wikibook makes it easy to update this publication with new developments in research and practice.