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In the last few years, technology has proven itself to be a mobilization powerhouse for disasters. Tales from the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami abound. From the senior project manager who used Google’s People Finder tool to locate his Japanese grandfather, to the young schoolteacher who broadcast pleas for help via Twitter before the nearby nuclear plant exploded, technology has become a pivotal player in guiding relief efforts, making connections and educating people about disasters. Here are a few ways technology has proved its usefulness.

1. A tool in relief efforts

A key to successful disaster relief management is the rapid deployment of information and resources. People are often displaced and don’t know where to go or what to do. Buildings are destroyed. People missing. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Google collaborated with GeoEye to display images of destruction so organizers could identify areas in need of support. Here are some examples of those images.

A similar effort was made in Japan. Search and rescue teams are, as of this article, using this information to map and assess the damaged areas so they can respond, recover and rebuild.

Using technology to assist in disasters is not new. Cisco Systems was one of the first technology responders to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, providing mobile communication kits and networks to support the massive data infrastructure needed in relief efforts.

2. Generating support

Donations are essential in providing just in time services to those in need. The immediacy of technology makes it easy to appeal to human sentiment with immediate calls to action. Apple first added a page to its iTunes store for Haitian earthquake relief and now continues the practice for Japan. The Red Cross elicits donations through its Twitter feed and via text messages. This fundraising method garnered more than $4 million for Haiti. To amplify the efforts of the Red Cross, Mashable promoted its code snippet for blog and website owners to use in soliciting additional donations.

3.  Connecting friends and family

At the time this post was written, more than 5,000 people had died and 9,500 were missing due to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Almost half a million are in shelters. Immediately following the crisis, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo issued a message to U.S. citizens in Japan encouraging them to contact their family and friends using SMS texting and social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. According to the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and resource, the Twitter hashtags #prayforjapan and #tsunami received thousands of tweets per second and a Facebook page set up for the disaster attracted more than 3000 followers in less than 12 hours.

Website registries have been set up to connect families and friends of those in the affected areas of Japan. In an effort to better consolidate registries and provide a single point of connection, Google has launched an open source multilingual and bilingual people finder tool for Japan to serve as a directory and message board for families and friends, as it did for the earthquakes in Chile, Haiti and New Zealand, Within the first few hours of launching, the tool logged more than 4,000 records.

4. Preparedness

Videogames and simulation software are another way responders are preparing for disasters. Software companies are creating mashups that combine satellite images, maps and spreadsheet data to create disaster scenario planning tools. Depiction is one such simulation application, used to train first responders. The tool combines live data feeds to create a dynamic tool that can be used for scenario planning, resource management, and logistics. Users can create alternative rescue routes, for example, by inputting data streams into the system real-time.

5. Education

Children are one target group that organizers are keen to educate. The International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) argues that children are amongst the most vulnerable to disasters but also the best positioned to be trained as future leaders, architects and urban planners. In response to this need, the ISDR created a multilingual online simulation game, Stop Disasters, to teach children about how to build safer cities and villages.  Players can select one of five scenarios including a tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, flood or hurricane. They are given a budget and limited time to safely house residents, build hospitals and schools, retrofit buildings, and equip those buildings with evacuation plans and early warning systems.  They learn how the location and construction of housing materials can improve the outcome of a disaster and how evacuation plans can help save lives. After the disaster hits, the user is scored on their success and told how they could have better prepared.

The Day the Earth Shook” is an earthquake preparedness game for children created by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Created by the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the Center for Public Safety and Justice, the game gives children the opportunity to explore a virtual world in which they learn how to create a disaster kit, locate safe locations in a home and safety tips.

6. Building and Rebuilding

The Global Innovation Commons is a vast database of over 500,000 energy-saving technologies with expired or abandoned patents. The goal of this organization is to provide access to open source technologies for life saving energy, water and agriculture devices. The patents in the database could save more than $2 trillion in license fees combined. But like most open source models, if you use anything in the database, you are encouraged to share your story with the community. In this video, Dr. David Martin, the founder of the Global Innovation Commons, talks about the organization:

While technology can’t bring back lost lives or repair billions of dollars in destroyed homes and businesses, it has proven itself to be an indispensable resource. And while technology’s role in connecting people through social media is invaluable, I do hope we can harness its powers to diminish the tragic effects of such disasters in the future.

Do you have examples about how technology is being used to assist in disasters or educate the public on preparedness? Share your comments below.

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