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Which technology to use for disaster management?

A boy on an improvised raft travels down a flooded road in a slum district of Tumana, near Marikina, in the Philippines (Aug 2012) Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
A boy on an improvised raft floats down a flooded road in a slum district of Tumana, near Marikina, in the Philippines (Aug 2012)

For decades, governments and NGOs have relied on private sector solutions to gather and interpret emergency data for crisis response, but a growing number of them have warmed in recent years to much cheaper "open-source" (OS) technology. IRIN spoke to experts around the world about their search for the most appropriate mix of technology to manage disasters.

Proprietary software does everything from providing imagery and geographic information system (GIS) data to centralizing government-generated data on a command centre "dashboard" during crises. It has been around decades but is costly.

Among the most prominent private sector companies working in disaster management is the California-based ESRI (formerly known as Environmental Systems Research Institute), which runs the ArcGIS platform that creates interactive maps based on satellite technology. Founded in 1969 and valued at nearly US$900 million a year, the company controls at least half the market for GIS technology.

But in recent years, especially after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, more cities and NGOs are turning to OS technology, which generally does not charge a license fee to download software, but may have downsides including lack of experts able to troubleshoot, and resistance from governments that favour more established proprietary solutions.

What is FOSS?

Free and open-source software (FOSS) can be downloaded, used, studied, copied and redistributed at little to no cost, with the goal being that users along the way improve the code and pass along a more "robust" piece of software. Stuart Gill, a co-founder of a community of FOSS developers called the Random Hacks of Kindness (RHOK) compared these "explosions of innovation" (from the design to the development of the code) to evolution where the most robust software code survives.

Since its founding in May 2009, the group - backed by the World Bank, the US government's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and US-headquartered companies Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Hewett Packard - committed first to creating disaster management solutions, then widened its focus to broader humanitarian challenges, through bi-annual "hackathons" where volunteer technologists (hackers as the organization calls them) furiously develop prototypes in an effort to stay ahead of disasters.

Gill estimates that since 2009, of the hundreds of prototypes coded for disaster management at these events, 50 have survived, with 10 of them being "really good".

Cheap and easy is the mantra of one hackathon product, First Responder.

"Cheap means not having to buy servers, hosting facilities. Cheap means using low-cost devices like smartphones and tablets. Cheap means minimizing training, upkeep, support and other costs. And cheap means, if you are a community organization and have your own technical support personnel, you can get a version of the software for free. Easy means fewer options and clutter. Easy means big buttons and simple layouts. Easy means access from any web browser connected to the Internet," reads its mission statement.

Such missions "disrupt" how disaster management has been handled in the corporate sector, said John Crowley, a Washington-DC based researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative who specializes in connecting governments with crowdsourced data during disaster response, and authored a 2011 study on information sharing in emergencies.

Proprietary software companies have thus far operated - and profited from - restricting access to software code, earning an annual income stream by maintaining their clients' software, he explained. "Open-source disrupts that annuity stream and creates an ecosystem of developers."

Hackathon disaster management products

First Responder web-based application tracks emergency response in real-time by showing responders turn-by-turn routing to destinations, calculating exact distances along roadways to hydrants or drafting sites, providing information about each responder's mission and those of other nearby “mutual-aid” actors as well as points of interest and potential hazards. The application uses Google services including App Engine, Latitude, Maps, Navigation, Picasa and Voice, and allows the import of icons, photos and other data on top of the Google Maps application programming interface, or API, helping responders evaluate staffing levels, monitor personnel deployment real-time and communicate with crisis teams.

InaSAFE is a web-based tool that utilizes a variety of open source projects to help users understand the risk of natural disasters and shape post-disaster decisions. Initially deployed in Jakarta, Indonesia, the tool produces maps of roads that might be blocked, schools and hospitals that would close, and renders accurate spatial representation of the supplies required to support the population during flooding.

Virtual Assembly Point lists the names, locations and physical status of disaster-affected people. Users share their status via text message, which is fed into a web application used by emergency operations centres to coordinate communication with friends, relatives and aid workers. The Kenya Red Cross Society helped customize the platform to handle daily emergencies and large-scale disasters. A large-scale rollout is under way.

Resilience (under development): This web-based application aims to offer "community-based disaster resilience in a box" by helping community members come together, report and resolve non-life threatening issues post-disaster. Developers have implemented the Open311 standard into the application to help governments extract issues reported (a downed tree that could affect rescue operations), and plan to test the application with communities in Australia ahead of the bush fire season at the end of this year.

Québec, Canada

Almost a decade ago, one of Canada's provincial governments took note.

Since 2005, Québec has turned to OS technology to provide geospatial information services, or GIS, (then almost non-existent) in its provincial Ministry of Public Safety. Without a culture of using proprietary disaster management software in terms of GIS, there was little opposition to exploring OS options since GIS services were almost new to the ministry at the time, said Nicolas Gignac, a ministerial GIS specialist.

A team of three GIS experts, including himself, started testing the most "mature" OS applications that offered GIS customer service support in Québec. Over the years, the most helpful and effective OS applications, Gignac said, were Mapserver (a "map engine" that points users to content), OpenLayers (embeds a dynamic map on any webpage), OGR-GDAL, or Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (two libraries that allow software programmes to read and write multiple GIS formats), and PostGIS (an extension to a database management system).

But the Public Safety Ministry was - and still is - in the minority of provincial government agencies using OS (about 10 percent Gignac estimated). Only Québec's National Public Health Institute, Ministry of Culture & Communication and a provincial agriculture agency are using the same GIS OS code - the remainder of the government and local authority opted for proprietary solutions (but some developed in-house hybrid model with OS coding and proprietary software).

Taipei, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the natural disaster-prone island of Republic of China (Taiwan), ArcGIS is handling almost all the government's GIS work through the Emergency Information Management System run by the national fire agency.

The Chinese republic has faced epidemics (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has killed near 40), earthquakes (a 1999 quake killed some 2,400) and annual typhoons.

Its experience with getting ESRI to make changes to the software has been relatively quick, said Wei-sen Li, the deputy executive secretary of the quasi-governmental advisory body, National Science & Technology Centre for Disaster Reduction in the capital, Taipei.

For Taipei, OS solutions did not appear stable or sturdy enough to handle the complexity of the disaster-prone island's data sets (120 to date). "ArcGIS is powerful enough to do the calculations and to integrate [the data] with satellite imagery, which cannot be achieved with Sahana," said Li, referring to an OS disaster management software founded in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest hit countries, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Due to the limited number of users (100) with rights to access the Arc-GIS licensed software in Taiwan, local governments use their own commercial disaster management software (disaster risk reduction and response are decentralized island-wide), and a number of NGOs and research groups have been trained to run Sahana.

And while Sahana's capabilities are "impressive" said Li, and include tracking crisis workers and volunteers, managing relief inventories and donations, mapping hotspots, registering disaster victims and reporting missing persons, managing triage cases and tracking aid projects, commercial software solutions have greater corporate support (not as readily available in the OS community), especially during disasters when errors and "unstable data" can be fatal, he said.

"There will be a balance between OS and proprietary solutions with each finding their niche"

ESRI runs a 24-hour toll-free hotline for its clients.

Crowley with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative said the disaster management technology market is still very proprietary (in the US alone, there are almost 40 types of software used to manage the country's emergency "911" hotline response), with only emergency mapping noting a significant shift to OS platforms like the Humanitarian Team at Openstreetmap, which creates and distributes no-cost geographical data to support relief efforts worldwide.

"People trust what is familiar and building trust takes time," even with the unprecedented pace of OS developments in the field of disaster management, said Crowley.

Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), Bangkok

ADPC chose Sahana to set up a regional portal in 2010 cataloguing disaster risk reduction (DRR) initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region and wanted an affordable software that could pull information from multiple data sources. "Sahana's a great innovation, it's cheap, it's easy to implement," said Bill Ho, the NGO's manager of the information, communications and technology unit.

First developed to share information on regional and multi-country DRR projects, the portal is now being expanded to allow for the sharing of national and sub-national DRR projects, including the Myanmar government's Ministry of Relief and Resettlement information portal.

After a six-month installation period, ADPC now subcontracts to consultants for maintenance. "That has been a challenge," said Ho. "It's hard to find people with the right skills and Sahana's human resource capabilities are low, so we have to rely on consultants. There are none based in Southeast Asia."

Crowley, the researcher with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, said varied needs, capabilities and starting points in terms of disaster preparedness and response means "there will be a balance between OS and proprietary solutions with each finding their niche".


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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