When disaster strikes—be it a flood, earthquake, or fire—the real work often begins when the immediate threat is over, from providing people with clean water to keeping them abreast of what comes next.
At the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in Silicon Valley recently, researchers, first responders, engineers, and field workers discussed how technology helps them get the job done.
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Dr. Yasuhiro Soshino, manager of the Japanese Red Cross Kumamoto Hospital's International Medical Relief Department, spoke from experience—he survived two earthquakes in 2016. "I live in Kumamoto, Japan, which was hit by two earthquakes last year—a 6.5 and a 7.3. There was significant damage and many people died," he told PCMag.
At the GHTC conference, Dr. Soshino detailed how his team developed a water supply system for the Red Cross Field Hospital. It's designed to pack up and ship to disaster areas as needed, but when the earthquakes struck Kumamoto, Soshino was grateful they were stored on site.
"The disaster destroyed 83,000 buildings and 180,000 people were evacuated. As our Japanese Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU) stores our field hospital equipment, and our water supply system, at the hospital, we were able to deploy it instantly. It contributed to keeping the hospital open, and fully operational, after the earthquakes, so many lives could be saved," he said.
The water supply system includes an innovative flocculant to provide water sanitation and a mobile flush toilet, which can be deployed in the field or pre-positioned at public facilities that serve as temporary refugee centers. There are also ready-to-go lithium ion battery packs and "ambulance drones" fitted with m-health kits for remote medical checks.
The flocculant, which costs $1, can purify 1 ton of water, Dr. Soshino told PCMag. "In our mobile flush toilet, the flushed water is purified and circulates in the system. So there is no need for vacuuming or suction mechanisms," he said. "By pre-positioning the toilet at the refugee centers before disasters, we can encourage people to evacuate. Early evacuation is the best way to save lives in disasters."
Dr. Brandie Nonnecke, a postdoc at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute at UC Berkeley, has also worked on earthquake preparedness. "For example, our DevCAFE—Development Collaborative Assessment and Feedback Engine—is now deployed in California as QuakeCAFE," she told PCMag.
But at GHTC, Dr. Nonnecke also discussed how equipping communities in a more grassroots strategy is key to disaster survival. She co-presented Malasakit 1.0, a crowdsourced, tablet-based tool her team used in the Philippines that lets people assess their readiness for typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and other devastating events.
"Malasakit means 'sincere care' in Filipino," Dr. Nonnecke explained. "Data collected in the field is often analyzed later back at base, but this...platform collects and streamlines quantitative and qualitative analyses in real time, and provides peer-to-peer insights of disaster risk reduction strategies and community readiness at a glance."
The tool supports English and Filipino, though it's a very visual tool as the Philippines is home to 187 languages; ratings and succinct calls to action smooth communication.
"We did a total of 12 field tests, in eight distinct geographic locations and almost 1,000 participants provided over 7,000 evaluations on flood and typhoon preparedness, giving 2,481 peer-to-peer ratings on 896 textual suggestions for how local government could improve [disaster risk reduction] strategies," she said. Some of the top suggestions were issuing immediate early warnings and cleaning drainages to reduce flooding.
In the spirit of open source development, Dr. Nonnecke's team published the code for Malasakit 1.0 to GitHub, to help other teams get a head start in their region.
"According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), more than 98 million people are affected by natural disasters each year," she pointed out. "And developing countries often lack effective [disaster risk reduction] strategies, resulting in higher mortality rates and long-term negative socioeconomic consequences. We hope the work we do not only saves lives but builds resilience within local communities."