Each year, over 200 million people around the world are affected or displaced by natural disasters. On top of the 100,000 plus lives lost each year, there is considerable economic damage.
As technology continues to play a central part in our lives, disaster-relief organizations – such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – are taking on large-scale crowdsourcing programs to help vulnerable communities before, during and after disasters.
Missing Maps – founded by the American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – relies, in part, on creating building data where none exist. The impetus behind the project is for maps to accurately and comprehensively document communities and developing countries – that is, areas that often have limited resources in the face of disaster – to be a powerful tool for relief response and forecasting risk.
During times of crisis, accurate information and swift communication can make a huge difference. So on top of crowdsourced mapping data, technology such as social media – which connects an estimated 3.2 billion people – offers another powerful tool in disaster communication.
At their simplest, Missing Maps and similar projects aim to add areas not previously located on accessible maps. This basic information is vital in identifying where aid might be needed during a disaster event as well as notifying those looking for aid where they need to go for assistance.
Through modern technology, maps have evolved to serve as real-time visualizations that can help aid agencies such as the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) identify patterns more easily and make decisions more quickly during times of disaster.
Data: Cross-Industry Partnerships
Flooding has long been a threat to the people of Cambodia; however, the risks associated with floods are changing. A 2011 flood brought more rising waters than the communities could handle, which meant hundreds more people within the community were affected when they came down with dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral disease.
CAFOD, a Catholic international development charity, used advanced mapping tools that allowed them to better identify, understand and visualize flood risks in Cambodia. Gisele Henriques, Resilient Livelihoods Adviser at CAFOD, notes the importance of these types of data.
“When you have a disaster, you have to respond quickly, and having good data at hand can be a matter of life or death,” she says.
The development of such tools, as in the case of Cambodia, was a cross-industry partnership* – between risk management professionals and nonprofit organizations. The technology, originally designed to help businesses forecast risks posed by weather and natural catastrophes, was used to develop more sophisticated maps for rural communities across the country.
Brad Weir, head of analytics at Aon, was integral to the program and explains, “By adding population data into the tool alongside geographic and historic flood data, we created detailed risk assessments for vulnerable communities that enabled scenario planning and rapid decision-making for when floods occur.”
The new risk maps for Cambodia allowed workers to access crucial information to better to prioritize where – and how – to build community resilience and improve long-term flood preparedness.
Map Data: Crowdsourcing Information
The Red Cross’s Missing Maps project is an open, collaborative initiative built on the power of crowdsourcing – relying on the general public to input information. For example, people can trace buildings and roads from satellite imagery to create detailed maps, which then are added to OpenStreetMap, a free and editable world map. Others can use this information on the ground or add more details such as the specific locations of health facilities, water points and schools. Such information is critical – especially during a disaster to aid workers when they’re on ground.
Social Media: Communicating And Collaborating In Real-Time
From keeping up with friends and family, to building professional networks, social media has become an important tool for connecting people and sharing information.
In times of crisis, social media can also be of critical use in the sharing of information throughout all stages of a disaster – from preparedness to response to recovery. Social channels can help fill information gaps as well as mobilize people with the tools they need to help others in need.
“Social media platforms have been critical in distributing information about recovery and reconstruction and identifying where the major stresses exist to focus aid efforts,” says Tom Crenshaw, senior analyst of Reinsurance Solutions at Aon.
Social media can also be an important forum for sharing advice and warning of impending disasters. The platform has created a way for people to call for help amid disasters and organize volunteers and humanitarian aid – sometimes faster than traditional methods. During Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017, victims used social platforms to ask for help while responders used hashtags and Twitter feeds to identify areas and people in need of aid. Social media platforms can help engage more citizens in their communities, building stronger connections necessary to disaster relief, recovery and reconstruction.
Through improved mapping, crowdsourced content and social collaboration, there are more opportunities to use data to empower people, organizations and governments to provide relief in smart and targeted ways across the globe – especially to those most vulnerable.
“Understanding how to help a community post-disaster relies on a fundamental grasp of the community itself. From communicating during disasters to rebuilding efforts, accurate information is critical in decision-making,” says Koby Langley, senior vice president of International Services and Service to Armed Forces at the American Red Cross.
*In partnership with University College London and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), Aon leveraged ImpactOnDemand, its data visualization tool, to boost disaster relief efforts such as the effort in Cambodia.
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