The Pacific Ocean and the island countries surrounding the Pacific Ring of Fire are the most disaster prone in the world. According to the United Nations Development Fund, nearly half of all disasters occur in this region. For example, 70 percent of tsunamis ever recorded have taken place in the Pacific Ocean and its marginal seas. This vulnerability is compounded. Even where countries in the region are keen to address these challenges, including through the application of innovative technologies to reduce disaster risk, they often lack the funding and expertise to do so.
It is in this context that in 2015, the Asian Development Bank (with funding from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction) launched an 18-month regional program called “Applying Space-Based Technology and Information Communication Technology to Strengthen Disaster Resilience Program.” As the name says, the program aims to establish more information-based disaster risk management through the application of new and innovative technologies. The utility of new technologies, such as mobile phones, during disasters has been well documented and discussed in my previous post. Affected communities often use these to communicate with their close networks and share information (e.g. on social media) about their situation and well-being. The program has four focus countries: Armenia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Fiji. Beyond their disaster-prone status, these countries were chosen because they have identified the need to strengthen disaster resilience in their country strategies. As part of the program, countries were required to undertake evaluation drills for early warning and disaster preparedness.
GeoBingAn mobile app
As a part of the program, a Taiwanese humanitarian tech firm GeoThings was contracted to develop a mobile app – GeoBingAn – to be used in disaster situations. It was designed with developing countries in mind; it is open source, free to download and easy to use. The app allows users to use their mobile phones to report problems for automatic collection to an online database – which relies on an open source map database called OpenStreetMap – that will then also mark their location. It provides an option to share real time information on vital issues during emergencies such as pictures of infrastructure damage. The app can be used either online or offline, thus remains practical in situations where telecommunications infrastructure is down. Having all the information stored in one, crowdsourced database gives the relevant stakeholders (national government, affected community and aid organisations) simultaneous access to coordinate their efforts. This enables them to deliver disaster and humanitarian relief, in a more coordinated and effective manner.
Pilot testing in Fiji
Fiji was chosen to be the first country to pilot the effectiveness of GeoBingAn app and additional technology. The decision to pilot the app in Fiji stemmed from the Fijian Government’s recognition of the benefits that innovative technologies and ICTs, such as mobile phones, can offer. In 2016, after the destructive Cyclone Winston, the government released a “Post Disaster Needs Assessment”, which included the incorporation of smartphone-based data collection for their post-disaster needs assessment and planning. From then onwards, planning for the increased use of ICTs for disaster response begun.
In 2017, the country’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) announced that they would start regular emergency response drills across the country. This is to evaluate the country’s ICT capability for emergency response and to educate the local populations about the opportunities it provides to prepare for, and react to, an emergency.
The GeoBingAn app was introduced for the first time during an emergency response drill (tsunami drill) in Suva, Fiji in early March this year. The drill involved the evacuation of nearly 4,000 students and teachers from 5 different schools situated on the coastline of Suva. The app tracked the evacuation of participants and provided NDMO officials with real time information from the moment of the public advisory on incoming tsunami until the participants’ safe arrival to the evacuation sites. Officials later reported the average evacuation time as 15 minutes. The drill allowed the involved parties (students, teachers, school management, government officials) to familiarise themselves with the app and at the same time, for the government to evaluate its current disaster response capabilities.
Once usage of the app was evaluated, it demonstrated that incoming reports from participants came in quickly, indicating the ‘easy-to-use and understand’ features of the app. This could illustrate that people who are familiar with the app will actually use it when a disaster does strike. This also indicates the importance and benefits of conducting further drills, not just tsunami-specific, but for other likely disaster with the use of this particular app (and other ICTs). As the drill highlighted, this can improve Fiji’s disaster response and, in the long term, bring rapid disaster and humanitarian relief to alleviate suffering and save lives.