The role of Technology in the Disaster Management Cycle

Disaster management is the discipline of dealing with, and thus avoiding any sort of risk – particularly of the natural variety. It is a discipline that involves a number of things, chiefly: preparing, supporting, and rebuilding society when natural or human-made disasters occur.

There are four main factors that make up the disaster management cycle which start with the mitigation of the disaster; a measure that seeks to prevent or reduce the impact of a disaster, which can be anything from death to environmental destruction. Second comes preparedness, or in other words, the planning, training and educational activities for anything that cannot be mitigated. The next step is response; the way in which the disaster is dealt with and the immediate aftermath. Next comes the recovery; or the long-term aftermath of a disaster, when life has not yet returned to normal, and when efforts are in place to cope with the consequences of the disaster.

And while there are a number of ways in which we as a society can prepare and mitigate natural disasters, it’s clear that the role of technology can have an instrumental affect in the disaster management cycle.

Seven years ago, in 2011, the economic cost of natural catastrophes and man-made disasters worldwide amounted to USD 370 billion, a colossal step up from the previous year. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami alone cost the national economy at least USD 210 billion. Science and technology play an increasingly vital role in managing, and there’s no doubt that technology can dull the consequences of disasters, even in impoverished societies with few resources for being prepared. After the natural disaster in Japan in 2011 – an event which caused the death of over 800 people – the main town that was affected prioritized building resilience against future disasters, by not only co-operating with the private sector to restore interrupted e-government services but also by leveraging technologies.

This is just one of a number of example of Japan’s experience in using technology in the disaster management cycle. On March 25, ministers and high-level policy makers from nine disaster-prone countries – Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam – met with more than 150 participants from the Japanese government, disaster-related agencies, embassies, the private sector, academia, and civil society in Tokyo in order to learn from Japan’s rich experience and discuss how it might be applied to disaster risk management in developing countries.

Since then, when it comes to dealing with disasters, a variety of technology tools, including but not limited to Ushahidi, Twitter, and Open Street Map have been used as a way of both mitigating and recovering from disasters, and the power of technology for disaster risk management has been widely recognized around the world. The Tokyo event highlighted technologies Japan leveraged in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which included: real-time traffic maps that were generated and made available to the public using data gathered from moving vehicles; observation data from flood sensors that was distributed to car navigation systems and smartphones; and GPS data from mobile phones which was used to reproduce and analyze the flow of people at the time of the earthquake.

The Japanese presented other advanced technologies for disaster risk management, including for early warning (such as J-alert - a nationwide automated early warning system); emergency response, data analysis and decision making (such as tsunami arrival time, flood level and risk analysis); and information sharing (such as mobile TV and satellite mobile phones).

All of the above examples clearly points to ways in which technology can be an instrumental and vital part of the disaster management cycle, wherever in the world the disaster might take place, and whatever sort of disaster it may be.

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