Sunday, January 17, 2010

Coordinating Disaster Relief

I am truly dumbfound to see the lack of great ideas and technologies being applied to disaster relief lately. There is a lot of good things that we should be doing beforehand, and it seems that we haven’t progressed much.

Not too long ago I found out that there is an agency within the UN that is dedicated to coordinating disaster relief efforts. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (website & Wikipedia entry) is the arm responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure coherent response to emergencies.

For those of you who don’t know much about it let me tell you a few interesting things that I think they done right:

They have the Consolidated Appeals Process, that approaches the donors and gathers money to fund long term development in some areas.

There is also the Central Emergency Response Fund, that ensure that funds are available immediately in response to disasters and emergencies.

ReliefWeb is together with the aforementioned Funds, the best that has come out of this agency. The website is like a central depository of information related to any kind of disaster relief activity that the OCHA is involved in. The main idea is that the information is disseminated as rapidly as possible across the world to anyone that might need it. Here you can track all the funding that is being pledged to the cause, you can find status updates, maps, all kind of policies that apply, key documents, and see who is reporting. You have access to information shared not only by the UN and it’s agencies but by the governments, NGO, news and media and even academic documents.

The GeoNetwork seems to be the place to find Find Interactive Maps, GIS datasets, Satellite Imagery and Related Applications but I couldn’t find anything useful on Haiti as of today. So I am not sure if it’s public info is restricted and it only shares “the good stuff” with the affiliated agencies, governments and NGO’s.

Finally the Who does What Where database seems to be a great source of information on finding out exactly who is responsible for what where. I cannot attest to this much, since you have to login to use the site.

I guess I should mention IRIN, the Integrated Regional Information Networks, which is a great source of information but it’s limited to only one region.

All in all I see this a great step towards readiness when it comes to disasters, but it’s not enough. There are three huge things that they are missing from the equation: technology, ideas and volunteer involvement. Let me address each of these.

When people see huge natural disasters or any other colossal problem that another group of humans are facing, they are moved by it and feel the need to help. Most of the time we do not know how to help. other than donating money to some of the organizations that we see on TV.

But I am sure there is always the need for skilled people in any disaster relief situation, whether is too help in the disaster area, or in their own countries with logistics and coordination and else.

For example we have RedR which is an international charity that provides training and recruitment services for the humanitarian sector, and very few people know about it.  There is also many online disaster plan workbook, that people should be told to read in their spare time so they can be ready to spring into action.

There are organizations like ATHA that train NGO personal and the like so that they know how to cooperate and coordinate civilians and military operations, strengthen security and protection of displaced persons among other things, but there should be something similar that trains common people on the basics of disaster relief, like CPR, or learning to identify symbols, to coordinate at a local level while the authorities arrive, to create temporary shelters, to start search and rescue operations in areas that do not pose a threat to them and else.

I am sure there is also the need for volunteers to help collect, organize and ship all the aid given in their own cities. There might be the need to donate boxes or other things to pack, and people might not even know about it and they might have their house packed of empty boxes that could be put to good use, just to mention some examples.

Here is where I think technology should be making it easier for all of us to become part of this disaster relief effort. If we can have a website where we have information on everything needed to get involved in aiding whatever disaster or humanitarian problem we treasure,using the latest technology, I think a lot of us will be much more involved.

I think a good website with all the web 2.0, web 3.0 and web 1000 or so, tools could do several important things:

1) It could begin by having a list of all the organizations that are pledging funds for each cause, so when i feel like donating I can pick and chose the one that I think it’s going to make a difference. It should have a description next to each organization, which states what are they planning to do with the money, how much do they need, how long will it take and even how much have they collected already.

That way I know where my money is going, if they are going to have enough to do what they say, if their ideas are worth it, etc.

2) It should have a good mash up of all the different news sources, whether they are news agencies like Reuters or AP, local media, NGO’s, of the local government. So that it a single page I can see all that is going on and who is saying what. While ReliefWeb has some of it, it has very limited news sources. Since this is a social site, it could have news from blogs and even a tweeter feed.

Filters could do wonders then to find specific information, and searching through the blogs and tweets we could find out, how some areas are doing, whether some bridges are down, it the have water ins some areas, etc.

3) A good and up to date app that links to Google earth, where all the reporters, relief workers and such could tag info, add data, put comments, add street views and use it to see which roads to take, at the same time the update information about different areas in real time.

4) Maps, facts, and all sort of data that is already available in the web should be mash up up immediately in the site. There should a map all kinds of maps readily available to look at, maybe using Google maps or what not, we should access road map, relief stations maps, population maps, emergency personnel deployment maps, etc. 

Data about hospitals, doctors, populations, gas stations and else should also be there either as a tag in Google maps or something similar, so that people can comment and update the status of each of this in as real time as possible.

Also technology could help not only with a website, but there are other needs as well that I think they are not being covered completely.

We need transportations, some 4 wheelers that are easy to deploy, not to heavy, maybe even foldable like the Japanese origami planes. We should have at least one shipping point from each continent, or maybe do some math and calculate 5 or 6 places where they can be stored and ready to get in the least amount of time anywhere they are needed. I am thinking they should be quite light so that a an Hercules C-130 can take them there asap.

We also need some quite temporary housing ready to be shipped and not the common tents that many countries are still sending, but something better, bigger I have seen really good one presented by Cameron Sinclair and some really good ideas in his Architecture for Humanity website. We should have a lot of those ready to be build.

Also we need people to design some cheap, efficient and easy to build and deploy sustainable energy and communication systems, so that we can speed up communications in every area and bring some electricity to operate medical and communications equipment.

Finally we need ideas, the main reason for the open social website that I propose is so that everyone can look at what happens and pitch in some ideas, sometimes the most simple and creative ideas come from unexpected places and we need them badly. People may not share them with those who could put them to good use, because the lack of channels to get your idea through, but if there is a place where you can share your ideas and contribute with others to help polish that idea so that it can become a reality then maybe we will be fairing much better each crisis.

I am convinced that there are millions of people out there willing to help in other ways that just donating money, and a lot of them have great ideas, many of them could help share and bring information to live, others with the right knowledge could help save life in those critical moments, and we should be doing everything possible to make this happen.




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