Technology as a Lifeline During Natural Disasters

Published: February 11, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory

While serving with the Peace Corps in the late 1990s, Dominic Thomas found himself living and working in a village in Nepal—a community that, for all intents and purposes, was cut off from the rest of the world.

More than 12,000 people lived there, Thomas recalls. And yet there was just a single telephone.

So when a typhoid outbreak hit the village during Thomas's stay, there was no rush to call the outside world for help. There was just that one phone, after all. The villagers accepted, in a sense, that they would have to fight their battles alone, and that no help was on the way.

The typhoid outbreak was not the world's problem. It was their problem.  

"I remember watching the dead literally being walked down the street to the [river], where villagers would burn the bodies," says Thomas, who today serves as a visiting assistant professor of information systems & operations management at Goizueta Business School. "I happened to be living on that road, and I just watched the bodies go by. And essentially that was it: people got sick, and they died."

Today such a scenario—one of complete isolation in the midst of a crisis—seems almost unbelievable. 

Broadband Internet and mobile technologies have reached even the most remote corners of the developing world, making the world a more immediately connected place than it's ever been before. So when disaster strikes—as it did most recently with the horrific earthquake in Haiti, which has killed more than 210,000 people—the entire world knows exactly what has happened. And knows it immediately.

The bottom line, Goizueta experts say, is simple: The spread of these mobile technologies—and the lessons learned from how those technologies are used in Haiti and elsewhere—is going help shape and, eventually, drastically improve disaster response strategies well into the future. 

“There's much more information available today, and we're also capable of dealing with more information from a wide range of sources,” says Benn Konsynski, Goizueta’s George S. Craft Professor of Information Systems & Operations Management. “That's different from the past . . . I don't think that we can ‘reduce’ risk, and I don't think people are looking at the issue or risk as more 'important' than they did before. But I do think risk is more manageable than it's been before, and that's why it's worthy of our analysis and consideration. We can't control the outcomes of disasters. But we can influence them.”

That much has been made clear by the response to the crisis in Haiti.

The quake has caused unspeakable destruction, and relief efforts have been stunted at best. But Haitians and many early responders were able to persevere, leveraging the nation’s fairly advanced cell phone-powered network—a network that grew, ironically, because of the lack of a reliable landline phone system—to help victims call for help, direct relief workers to areas of greatest need and self-organize rescue efforts almost immediately after the temblors stopped.

The speed at which word got around not only about the disaster itself, but also about the ways the quake had impacted specific individuals in specific places, was indicative, Thomas says, of just how much communication technology can help in disaster situations.

“This technology enables the end-user to be autonomous,” Thomas explains. “That’s a story about unlocking human potential. You can have somebody literally smashed underneath a building tweeting out his location, or possibly making a phone call. That’s how this technology is getting used.”

Aid agencies have recognized this, and as a result have made mobile technologies central to their modern relief efforts.

Take, for instance, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which almost immediately after the quake sent a relief team to Port-au-Prince to set up what it called an Emergency Information Service, which served as a massive—and free—instant messaging service. The EIS not only broadcast important messages to Haitian citizens—including directions, for instance, on which hospitals were still accepting patients—but also was able to receive messages from those seeking help. In one instance, the EIS received a text from a man who had been trapped under the rubble for five days. EIS used the message to pinpoint the man’s exact location. Rescuers later saved him from almost certain death.

The network essentially empowered the victims to lead the rescue efforts, rather than wait to be rescued. 

Thomas and Konsynski say Haiti’s example offers just a small glimpse of what the future might hold for technology in disaster response—or, at the very least, what is possible.

“The way I like to think about it is to strive for more efficient outcomes,” Konsynski says. “That may be about reducing the loss of life, or that may be about creating a more rational society as quickly as possible, so you don’t get widespread crime.”

“We’re in the very early stages of this,” adds Thomas. "We've barely scratched the surface.”

As more people gain access to increasingly advanced technologies, Thomas says, it will become easier to disseminate ever larger amounts of potentially life-saving information.

He envisions a world in which relief workers will have access to color-coded, highly detailed “heat maps “of disaster areas—maps that will use instant messages and other mobile messaging to build a crisis response plan, telling workers where in the disaster area victims need medicine, where they need food and where security is breaking down. He believes advanced mobile devices like the iPhone will eventually become ubiquitous, allowing outside experts to relay expert information—about how to repair a damaged pier, for instance—to local officials almost immediately after a disaster. He can even see a day when mobile devices will carry a mix of crucial pain-relief drugs that can only be made available when a central command system recognizes they are needed.

Of course, the key to this kind über-networking is the continued expansion of broadband Internet access.

And on that count, at least, the world has nothing to worry about; Thomas expects almost the entire globe to have broadband access by 2011.

"You're now seeing an Internet-type network model, even in the Third World—even in places like the one I lived in Nepal," Thomas says. "Now, there are cell phones everywhere. But people don't appreciate that this is a really huge shift. In that village, there were 12,000 people and one phone. Today, if you look at a map of the world, you'll see massive broadband capacity, and even in Africa most people will have it by 2011. That's probably the last major geography to come online. But it will come online."

Photo:  Professor Dominic Thomas in the mountains of Nepal in the late 1990s.

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