Disasters and crises strike with little to no warning, yet how governments and relief agencies respond to it can help dull its bite. Since the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, disaster technology has rapidly progressed to help communities better prepare, communicate, and keep informed during emergency situations.
Here are some ways how technology has significantly improved disaster response.
Enabling communications despite the lack of cellular networks
Telecommunications infrastructure is often among the hardest hit areas during a disaster, rendering afflicted communities incapable of reaching out for help. This is where wireless mesh networking comes in. How it works is that it taps peer-to-peer Wi-Fi or Bluetooth technology of a device (known as a node) to share connectivity with other nodes within vicinity. These in turn will do the same, creating a network connection across a large area without needing Internet connection or cellular networks.
FireChat is one such app built on mesh networks, and has been used by thousands across the world since its launch in 2014. It recently partnered with City of Marikina, a city in the Philippines that was almost completely submerged in water at one point due to a typhoon, to build a city-wide mesh network to be used during natural disasters. In disaster-prone Philippines, this means that it will be easier for people to reach out for help, communicate with their loved ones and crowdsource vital information despite the lack of connectivity.
Broadcasting rapid updates to keep people informed
Timely and accurate information during a crisis is important in reducing chaos and confusion, and facilitating effective relief operations. The Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) system does just that in emergency zones. Piloted in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, it allows aid workers to send text messages to every switched-on handset in a specific area through the computer, and is currently being rolled out in over 40 countries around the world.
In the more recent 2014 Ebola crisis, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, together with telecom provider Airtel and the Sierra Leonean government, used the TERA system to broadcast health reminders via text messages. Sierra Leone saw two million messages blasted out each month, reminding people to seek treatment early, avoid physical contact with others and be more receptive to the efforts of community healthcare workers. This significantly helped the relief agency in its effort to contain the Ebola breakout in the West Africa region.
Coordinating relief efforts across different agencies
Disasters often destroy a region’s infrastructure, greatly hindering emergency response. In the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, entire roads were washed out and Japan’s electrical grid was battered, making it difficult for first responders to coordinate relief efforts. Food shortages were also rampant, compounded by distribution issues caused by transportation problems.
Second Harvest Japan, the nation’s largest food bank, turned to cloud computing to address this issue, working with Microsoft, AidMatrix, and Slalom Computing to deploy a cloud-based community portal since its existing one was not able to disseminate rapid updates demanded in a time of disaster. Through this Windows Azure-powered portal, people can get real-time updates on food supplies, shelters and radiation conditions throughout the affected areas. It also served as a platform to coordinate food donors, transportation providers and distributors, enabling relief workers to deliver the aid and resources to those in need in a timely manner.
There are still many more ways how technology has greatly benefitted relief efforts in disaster situations. And with the emergence of futuristic innovations, from drones to powered exoskeletons, we can only look forward to how it will continue benefitting millions of people in times of need.
Learn more about the resources Microsoft is providing to help connect communities and enable responders.