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Deepti Samant Raja

  ICT and Disaster Management


Education, Integration, and Resilience of Communities Key to Implementing Inclusive ICTs in Disaster Management

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This post focuses on a few aspects of using inclusive ICTs in disaster management that are under the spotlight with the terrible floods in the Kashmir region across India and Pakistan: early warning systems and resilience.

Massive floods in Jammu and Kashmir, India. Image credit: PTI.

Image: Massive floods in Jammu and Kashmir, India. Image credit: PTI.

Vulnerability in disasters is said to be socially constructed (for example, read Morrow’s influential article). Social disparities, environmental barriers, and lack of access to authorities and resources all superimpose to determine the direct and indirect impacts of a disaster or emergency situation. Many different groups owing to different factors face serious and grave barriers in successful evacuation, response, and recovery efforts such as persons with disabilities, children, people who are elderly, people in geographically remote regions, people who are homeless, and those who are dependent on others for care such as in nursing homes.

The rising use of ICTs across all stages of the disaster management process – mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and reconstruction – has raised excitement and hope about ensuring that no-one gets left behind. ICTs can play a crucial role in saving lives, minimizing destruction, and connecting people to people, aid, and resources if we can break down access barriers and ensure that deployed ICTs are inclusive to the needs of all. How to do this is the topic of an ongoing G3ict study, commissioned by ITU, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region.

This post focuses on a few aspects of using inclusive ICTs in disaster management that are under the spotlight with the terrible floods in the Kashmir region across India and Pakistan: early warning systems and resilience.

The success of early warning systems lies in sharing information with communities:
Much has been written about the lack of early detection and warning systems in the region and efforts are being undertaken to set up weather observatories. Early warning systems play a key role in detecting impending triggers for future disasters. However, we have to keep in mind that the success of early warning systems in reducing the loss of lives and destruction of property depends on two other aspects:

  • Getting the message out to the relevant communities and authorities
  • Building the capacity of the local community to interpret and act upon the information provided

Breaking down barriers to information access for ALL:
This is where the accessibility of ICTs used to translate and disseminate early warnings is crucial. The biggest benefit to using ICTs for disaster preparedness and planning materials is that content can be created and delivered in multiple formats through multiple media. However, despite their potential many of these formats may be inaccessible. For example, television public service announcements, online videos, and purely audio based webcasts will be inaccessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing if they are accompanied by subtitles or sign language interpretation. Fact sheets, handbooks, and manuals may be unusable by persons with print disabilities (visual impairments, low literacy etc.) if they are in formats that cannot be read aloud such as jpeg files or inaccessible image based PDFs. These access barriers have to be considered and addressed during the preparedness phase.

When one has to get emergency and disaster communications out to groups that are traditionally underserved, we have to look at all forms of ICTs – the new and the old, high tech and low tech. Disaster management authorities can quickly transmit this information to individuals' personal media devices using SMS warnings as well as sending emails, and posting alerts on their social media pages on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  Alerts in audio and visual formats through public loudspeakers and electronic displays on railway platforms, consumer markets, and other public areas can reach people who may not have access to personal electronic devices. The main success story coming out of the devastating floods in Indian Jammu and Kashmir is that of Radio Kashmir, the public broadcaster, which has been the major source of news and connections to lost and missing loved ones through their Helpline broadcast when most of the telecommunications systems went down. Devices such as the special-needs NOAA weather radio can transmit the broadcasts as vibrations, flashing lights, and simple texts to alert individuals who are dead and hard-of-hearing of weather and disaster warnings.

The community is key to action and resilience:
Communities, including groups that are traditionally underserved, need to have knowledge and understanding of what to do once the warnings come in. The Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 believes that communities need to be empowered through access to information to build their capacity to respond and manage risks. Communities should have knowledge, education, and necessary technology to respond appropriately to aid groups that are disproportionately affected. Thus as global discussions in disaster management focus increasingly on resilience, the focus cannot just be on the resilience of the ICT infrastructure but also the resilience of communities to use and benefit from them during disasters.

Appropriate trainings on accessible ICTs in disaster management should be conducted for persons with disabilities, women, children, people who are elderly, people who are homeless, and others along with civil society, caregivers, community organizations, and local authorities. Information on using ICTs along with other effective practices in disasters can be integrated into formal and information education systems as recommended by UNICEF. Engaging communities, and members of traditionally underserved groups from the early stages of ICT-based disaster management will help identify gaps in access and accessibility, sensitize responders to their needs, and test the interoperability of multiple ICT modes to get the message out in multiple formats.

Communities should be exposed to the availability of online disaster management and coordination platforms and initiatives such as the Person Finder tool launched by Google during several disasters. Exposing community members to how data could be collected and used to coordinate response and recovery operations – such as people registries, databases, crowdsourcing – can make them active participants in the effort to gather data while becoming more transparent about the ethical considerations involved in using personal information for targeted response efforts.

In conclusion, ICTs can be a tool to level the playing field and go around the traditional access barriers to reaching persons with disabilities and other groups that are isolated, left out, and unable to access disaster response. At the same time, we have to be cautious that ICT-enabled disaster and emergency management does not pose further barriers due to inaccessibility, unavailability, and life situations as in a disaster or emergency situation, being shut out of information sources and being unable to connect with relief personnel or resources can prove fatal. This requires attention and thought to using a range of technologies or systems, as well as building the community capacity to use them appropriately in disasters and emergencies.


Related Resources

Blog: Enabling Environments to Persons with Disabilities: How Much Progress Has Been Achieved? | Read Viviana Montenegro's Post.

Publication: The ICT Opportunity for a Disability-Inclusive Development Framework | Download PDF.

Event: G3ict Partners with OCAD University's DEEP 2014 | Toronto, Canada - October 16-17, 2014 | View Event Details.