How smartphones will help save Asia

from disasters

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February 2018

Every day there is a disaster happening in some part of the world. In Asia and the Pacific, the occurrences are far more frequent and catastrophic, given the exposure and vulnerability of both assets and the masses. But a tap and a click could soon reduce statistics.

 

Mobile phones have proven to be extremely useful in times of disasters, such that it has become almost automatic for many people to tweet when inundated with floods or after sensing an earthquake in order to corroborate conditions or even request for relief. Social media and forms of instant messaging are easy means of communication, which in life-threatening situations can be highly critical for immediate emergency response and rescue.

On the other hand, it is also common for affected areas to have disrupted communication lines and power failures that prevent people to reach out and get needed attention.

 

The ADB technical assistance (TA), Applying Space-Based Technology and Information and Communication Technology to Strengthen Disaster Resilience, works on the premise that this century’s ubiquitous gadget, along with satellite-based technology, has the potential to be a game-changer for disaster management. Smart phones, after all, have revolutionized different industries like music, photography, and the media.

 

According to the TA report, many developing member countries (DMCs) have tried to introduce disaster monitoring and early warning systems using conventional sensor networks for data collection. However, scaling up the use of these equipment, such as water-level gauges for river discharge, was found to be challenging due to heavy costs, lack of technical capacity, and maintenance. 

 

Space-based technologies and information communication technologies – or rather, satellite imagery via web platforms and smartphones – are more accessible, affordable, and effective.

And yet, as the report underscored, these have been underutilized by local governments and communities due to a lack of awareness on the availability of satellite data; poor or no internet connection during and after a disaster; and lack of coordination among government agencies to integrate the data for effective post-disaster support.

As a result, the TA project, which is primarily financed by a $2 million grant from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR), aims to improve local data collection by introducing mobile applications (apps) and a WebGIS platform to governments and communities. The former will be used primarily for crowdsourcing information on the ground, while the latter allows decision-makers to view the information on an accessible website connected to geographic information systems. Satellite-based technologies then provide data and information about the extent and duration of a disaster covering a large area. Together these technologies will enable decision-makers to improve response, recovery, and reconstruction efforts. The goal also is to contribute towards national disaster management plans that will help concerned agencies to prepare prior to disasters and in the aftermath of one, to quickly carry out response and assess damages.

The TA project focused on four countries that are highly prone to natural hazards and disasters: Armenia, Bangladesh, Fiji, and the Philippines. They were also chosen since they have identified strengthening disaster resilience as part of their country partnership strategies and/or country operations business plans with ADB and they have ongoing nationwide community-driven development efforts or urban disaster management programs, said ADB project officer Tadayoshi Yahata.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) also provided technical support and supported implementation of the project. Meanwhile, Taiwanese humanitarian tech firm GeoThings was hired to design the mobile apps and WebGIS for the project.

 

Reporting disasters is within reach for people, while governments and rescuers have real-time information viewing and communications. This type of combined communications mechanism can save lives.

Snap and save: How the technologies work

Unlike sophisticated programs or fancy machinery, increasing communities’ disaster resilience only comprises of four digital tools used in five simple steps:

 

  1. Digitizing. Communities identify roads and buildings on Open Street Map (OSM), a free and open-source map of the world based on satellite imagery, by drawing points, lines, and polygons. This inputted data is then verified by a group of OSM volunteers, which becomes reflected on the map within the day.

  2. Creating a Base Map. With the use of the mobile app geoMapTool, communities can add key details of buildings (or attribute information) and other infrastructure identified in OSM during field surveys of the area. For example, a local official or volunteer can put a building’s height or type of material on the app.

  3. Recording Capacities. A second mobile app called geoBingAn allows communities to share information on various capacities, such as evacuation capacity, shelter capacity, flood capacity, among others, wherever and whenever they are. This allows the community to collate the data and create community hazard maps on the corresponding geoBingAn web platform.

  4. Recording Disasters. The same mobile app also serves a way for individuals to report various crises, such as floods, landslides, building damages, as well as their needs like water, power, shelter, and medicine. A simple click on an icon and straightforward drop-down menus ensure ease of use especially during tense situations.

  5. Emergency Observation. Upon the request of national disaster management offices, satellite data of the affected areas can be acquired through emergency observations. This enables governments to understand the extent of a disaster when it is overlaid with community-based maps.

 

All the tools were made with developing countries in mind, meaning it’s free, convenient to use, and easily replicable. More importantly, as the project team emphasized, the apps can be used offline or even when internet connectivity is down. Kuo-yu Chuang, co-founder of GeoThings, said: “We designed these applications to be easy like a remote control. You just look at the icons and you know what you’re going to do.”

 

The concept of geoBingAn, he added, is all in the name, which in Taiwanese stands for “you are all safe and sound”.

Instant benefits and advantages of the apps

Similar to other social apps like Instagram, geoBingAn gives communities a kind of instant gratification. Locals feel empowered, said Manzul Kumar Hazarika, digital mapping specialist of the Asian Institute of Technology’s Geoinformatics Center, which led project implementation. “Information was not so quick before, but now it is very quick,” he noted.

Reporting disasters is within reach for people, while governments and rescuers have real-time information viewing and communications. This type of combined communications mechanism can save lives.

Hazarika explained: “In Bangladesh, for example, there are remote communities, and one is an island in a 10-kilometer-wide river. Before they were completely isolated, but now they can report directly to the government using the app.” They can even send photos with locations, a better way of informing, he emphasized. So aside from empowering the community, benefits also include disaster preparedness and good connectivity, he added.

Adding attributes on the geoMapTool, on the other hand, is just as essential as reporting a crisis in geoBingAn. In developing community hazard maps, “we need to know these things, like the number of floors in a building, such that if it’s a single-story house it means it could be completely flooded unlike if it’s two floors and you could bring your belongings up to the second floor,” said Hazarika.

 

Improving the app further

Since the TA was only a pilot demonstration, the tools can still be refined based on the experience in the selected towns in the four countries and the possibility that it gets scaled up. At the moment, the apps are not too restricted in terms of users. People – especially those that were trained in the pilot communities – only have to do a quick registration. In the future, it could be linked with national identification numbers, which could improve search and rescue, or even be a deterrent for fraudulent reporting.

Similarly, should there be more and more users, there is also a suggestion to segregate the information coming in to different screens and systems, whether for medical concerns, power disruptions to energy agencies, and such.

Moreover, due to the prevalence of social media, Hazarika mentioned that it would be “advantageous” to connect the apps with social channels as an additional layer of communication; although, he noted that not all communities would have social media.

Another area for improvement would be to have the app show the safest way to go to an evacuation center or a designated safe location, said Hazarika. “For example, if the area is flooded this road might be blocked, so the app should be able to find a path that is not flooded. There are many practical features that could be implemented.” The use of drones for more data acquisition, mapping, and monitoring was also a point of discussion for the TA team.

Impact on the future of disaster resilience

After working with the villages and communities in the four pilot countries, which included training workshops and field activities, Bangladesh is now interested to expand the project and incorporate the lessons to the national disaster risk management plans to increase the country’s resilience.

The work in Bangladesh, in collaboration with the Department of Disaster Management (DDM), led to the digitization of over 4,000 buildings in the two target communities of Barguna and Sirajganj. Through this, they were able to prepare situational reports, needs assessments, and damage reports. Upazila (sub-district) and DDM officials were able to use this information to make decisions based on actual data, optimizing use of resources and rescue operations.

Minister for Disaster Management and Relief Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury said: “Strengthening resilience through the use of modern technology can reduce risks and save lives, transforming Bangladesh into the Golden Bengal we dream of.”

In the Philippines, specifically in the towns of Padre Burgos and Santa Josefa, the TA project was warmly received as well. Glelever Niere, village secretary of Barangay Rizal in Padre Burgos, shared, “This is extremely valuable in our village because it is highly susceptible to storm surge. We in the village council find this fundamentally necessary because we can reduce the number of families affected by typhoon hazards.”

Gloria Semira, municipal disaster risk reduction management officer of Padre Burgos, also added: “We hope we’re not the only ones who learn about this, so that our goal to have a disaster-free or disaster-ready municipality could become a reality.”      

CONTACT

Kuo-yu (Slayer) Chuang 
Co-founder and CEO
GeoThings
Manzul Kumar Hazarika
Director
Geoinformatics Center – Asian Institute of Technology

*To institutionalize the app, its name will eventually be changed to reflect ADB’s identity.

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ADB's Vision of Livable Cities

Cities contribute to national economic growth, but they can be polluted and overcrowded. Asia’s rapidly developing cities face inadequate basic services, environmental degradation, and increasing poverty. “Livable Cities” is ADB’s vision and approach to urban development. ADB works to support the transformation of developing cities in Asia and the Pacific into safe, sustainable urban centers.

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