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Published on September 22nd, 2015 | by EJC


Using Technology To Change The Face Of Disaster Response

This article was written by Anna R. Hurt and originally published by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy on 28 May, 2015. Republished with permission.

In 2014, as the Ebola virus raged out of control in West Africa, a small start-up in South Africa designed a mobile app – Ebola Care – to allow responding international non-governmental organizations to better trace cases and needs. One month ago, in the hours following Nepal, small drones flew over the disaster area, capturing video and gathering information on where people – both alive and dead – were located. The many faces of technology are quickly changing how disaster response and management operates, and with that change comes immense opportunity for all involved.

Speaking May 12 during a Center for Disaster Philanthropy webinar on technology in disaster response, David Roberts, chairman of HaloDrop, said that the flying robots used following the Nepal earthquake were 95 percent computer and 5 percent other parts, and were able to both assist search and rescue efforts and gain an information stream that could be used to assess damage and create 3D images.

Just three hours after the same disaster, Justine MacKinnon, president of Standby Task Force, was able to use a team of micromappers to produce its first report on the affected area. Micromapping has been used in other disasters and humanitarian crises, including Syria and the Ebola outbreak.

Technology can provide those responding to disasters with new tools to improve efficiency, but often donors lack the understanding for how to fund technology in this area; and iNGOs often lack the funds to implement.

“It is a tool,” said Gisli Olafsson, emergency response director at NetHope. “It’s not a magical solution, but it is a tool they can leverage to make the work more effective.”

All of the webinar’s panelists noted some things they would place on a wish list for future uses of technology.

“One thing that struck me in Nepal was the main airport was littered with pallets of supplies just sitting on the runway,” Roberts said. “And I wonder if the next thing would be larger, hovering drones that could carry 200-300 pounds of supplies to other locations.”

MacKinnon and Olafsson both noted the need for better sharing of information and resources gained.

“We can use as many high tech tools and platforms as possible, but if we aren’t able to get the relevant information to the right people, it’s useless,” MacKinnon said.

Donor response to assist in this area means working with those companies developing the technology and the iNGOs. In many ways, donors are capable of being the bridge between two very different arenas.

“I often hear, in disaster response, the encouragement to donate to the proven larger organizations,” Roberts said. “… We can’t keep only doing that. This technology comes from start-ups and they have very high leverage points, so a small amount can make a monumental difference. The technology is inherently risky, but with that risk comes extremely high rewards.”

Roberts noted that creating the kind of drone he noted as being able to carry several hundred pounds of supplies to cut off areas during humanitarian crises and disasters would take a donor willing to invest about $100,000.  Olafsson said it was important to not just discuss the technology with donors and iNGOs.

“We talk too much about the technology itself, rather than what it enables,” Olafsson said. “It enables better contact tracing, social mobilization, and all these other things that we need following a disaster. Once donors understand what the needs are and what technology enables to meet those needs, then they can align with what their specific interests are.”

About the Author:

Anna R. Hurt has more than eight years of experience as a writer and editor.  Most recently, she worked as a public affairs specialist for the Army, which included editing print products and developing social media and strategic communication plans.She holds a B.A. in Political Science and a M.A. in Security Studies, both from Kansas State University.  Her area of emphasis in graduate school was Southwest Asia and the Middle East, and her major research papers were focused on the areas of gender in terrorism and ethnic conflict. She chose to shift gears professionally from public service to private NGO work because of her belief that it is important to approach the world’s problems from the ground up – people cannot build secure and stable countries when they do not have a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs.She grew up in Shawnee, Kan., and currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.  In her free time, she loves to play softball and volleyball and is an avid runner. Follow on Twitter: @anna4disaster

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