ICTs for Risk and Crisis Management: Technical and ethical challenges

Realised that though I had blogged about my interview at the Global Risk Forum held in July 2010 in Davos, Switzerland, I hadn’t uploaded the presentation I delivered at the panel discussion. I do recall that I was the only one in a panel of 5 that kept to time.

Rather than go into a description of ICT platforms such as they exist today, I took a long view and anchored by presentation to two key challenges to aid work in general often exacerbated by the plethora of ICTs in use – the lack of attention, and diminishing empathy.

Based on my work, I looked at how things had changed from 2008 to 2010, looking at the responses to Cyclone Nargis versus the Haitian Earthquake. While the technical challenges I flagged are well-known, there is little emphasis, among many of the new crisis information management actors, of the ethics of engaging with disasters using ICTs, especially over the long-term and when dealing with victims. This is something I’ve written about for years – see Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design for example.

Outlining some recommendations, I note that in fact, the knowledge and experience needed to address the challenges faced today are already in the public domain.

Social Media in Haiti provides critical information on Haiti’s need

OCHA’s ReliefWeb has (a very rough) transcript of my recent podcast with IRIN on the use of technology in Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake relief effort.

Read it here. Read about the podcast and listen to the original version here.

A pertinent excerpt from the interview:

TUNBRIDGE: Did you see what is going on high-tech world here is unprecedented. Did you think it is going change forever the way we do respond to disasters?

HATTOTUWA: The way we respond to disasters it will always be the same. It will require sweat. It will require physical effort and it will require political will. These three key ingredients are the backbone of any post disaster relief effort and these will not change even as we move into the future. What I think highly demonstrates quite clearly is that technology is the fourth element. We have seen an unprecedented effort with regards to technology deployment to find out very rapidly after the earthquake what the needs on the ground were, where the most urgent cases of aid were in Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country. As well as technology deployments to generate financial aid for the relief efforts. I think Goggle set up a dedicated page very quickly after the earthquake. Apple allows you to donate through Itunes. And unprecedented sum of money that the American Red Cross – the ICRC have got through mobile donations. I think at last count 10 to 12 million US dollars. This has been unprecedented in relief efforts for disasters of this nature and certainly yes it will change the way the world responds to disasters. Because these are now technologies that as we have seen with Haiti can be extremely quickly deployed and we have seen with platforms like USHAHIDI, SHAHANA, INSTEED that is a global community behind these efforts to shape it to translate the systems into Creole and French, to fine tune the systems to the needs on the ground in Haiti. I think this has been unprecedented in the way they respond to the disasters and certainly sets the parameters of what we can expect in the future after disasters such as this.

Keeping empathy alive: New media and storytelling on disasters

I delivered a presentation today at a workshop organized by South Asian Women in Media looking at media coverage of disasters. In the first part, heavily influenced by Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World, I suggested story ideas and angles better able to generate and vitally, sustain, audience interest in disasters and their aftermath.

In the second part, I used my own experience in using new media to cover humanitarian disasters to flag new tools, platforms and techniques vital to journalists. I also noted how journalists could now avail themselves of a plethora of web and mobile based technologies to get, disseminate, archive information on and sustain interest in disasters and crises.

The presentation is available as a full colour, high resolution PDF here.

Recommendations and ideas to strengthen best practices of Crisis Information Management at the United Nations, New York

ICT4Peace Foundation

This is an excerpt from Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities that can be downloaded in full from here.

The authors strongly feel it is timely for the UN System as a whole to address, at a strategic level, issues of crisis information management and technology best practice and interoperability – to identify current knowledge of best practice, capabilities and challenges, and plot a way forward to improved response.

Respondents in the discussions felt that IM and KM strategies, frameworks and technologies were constantly evolving as well, making it important to create policies in the UN robust enough to handle current needs but flexible enough to accommodate change. Others noted the importance of using appropriate technology – hardware and software solutions – that could leverage existing (embryonic) IM / KM mechanisms and render them more meaningful and effective. This includes the need to develop of mechanisms and tools that work in austere conditions. Crisis information systems need to be developed that work robustly and are “good enough” to work in conditions of chaos, political instability, poor and intermittent network access, lack of physical security, with democratic institutions under siege and very little control over territory by a central government. Developed for these conditions, it is expected that the crisis information management tools can both scale up and be deployed in other conditions less austere, and also at the HQ level at the United Nations in New York.

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Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities

ICT4Peace Foundation

Sanjana Hattotuwa and Daniel Stauffacher

From October 2007 to February 2008, representatives from the ICT4Peace Foundation met informally with a number of high-level representatives at key agencies based at the United Nations in New York in preparation for a stocktaking exercise on crisis information management capacities and best practices. These meetings with heads of agencies, units and departments, IT administrators and key Knowledge Management (KM), Information Management (IM) professionals and consultants gave vital insights into some of the best practices and key challenges facing crisis information management at the UN including the gaps and needs that had already been identified, the challenges facing KM and IM and ideas for meaningfully addressing some of these challenges.

A draft report was tabled at a meeting held on 8th July 2008 in New York at the United Nations, where respondents and other high level participants were invited to engage with the preliminary findings and observations. Their input and feedback at the meeting and via email is incorporated in this final draft.

Download a copy here.

IBM solves all challenges in a natural disaster in under an hour!

From Paul Currion comes a pointer to this tragi-comic article on IBM’s latest discovery – complex algorithm that solve all challenges, even unknown ones related to natural disaster preparedness and management:

…The model allows all unforeseen challenges to be solved, mostly within an hour, and has very good scalability that promises to gracefully manage even larger models in the future.IBM scientists developed a large-scale strategic budgeting framework based on Stochastic algorithms for managing natural disaster events, with a focus on better preparedness for future uncertain disaster scenarios. The underlying optimization models and algorithms were initially prototyped on a large unnamed US Government program, where the key problem was how to efficiently deploy a large number of critical resources to a range of disaster event scenarios.  The same models can be explored to manage floods or famines in India, or natural disasters anywhere in the world, IBM said.

Another article on the same issue notes that as the modeling becomes more sophisticated, IBM researchers have been able to infuse the models with “human” factors, such as politics, custom and culture. “As researchers factor in human behavior in the models, the results grow less uncertain and more accurate and acceptable.”

Bloody hell.

I guess the IBM researchers have also come up the answer to life, the universe and everything. But just in case they haven’t, someone should recommend a full detox and comprehensive psychiatric evaluation for Dr. Gyana Parija.