Saving Nepal: The Information Revolution

Monday, May 4, 2015

Communities impacted by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake (and subsequent aftershocks) that struck Nepal on April 25th have a variety of needs, stemming from immediate protection of physical safety and security, access to life saving services, and basic subsistence (food, clean water, shelter) and psycho-social support in the aftermath of an extremely traumatic event. In the case of Nepal and the city of Kathmandu, recent reports suggest that the capital city’s critical infrastructure and services were not sufficiently resilient to protect against an earthquake, that the topography of the region is such that landslides remain a concern, and that socio-cultural factors like caste-based discrimination makes some communities more vulnerable than others.

The scope of the natural disaster

According to the April 30 Situation Report of the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), search and rescue and aid agencies responding to the crisis in the coming days are focused on providing shelter to the displaced–government reports suggest over 130,000 homes were destroyed and 85,000 partially damaged. In Kathmandu alone there are an estimated 24,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) registered in tented settlements, although many more are likely seeking refuge in informal settlements and in the rubble of partially damaged—and still vulnerable—homes. Identifying missing persons, and effectively and ethically managing dead bodies are still a major part of the response. Tents and food are among the highest prioritized areas of need (over 3 million are in need of food aid in the region), and health remains a primary concern as hospitals near the capital have reportedly run out of supplies.

Effective information management—the collection, analysis, and sharing of accurate, timely, and actionable intelligence—is thus a critical part of the response effort, especially as badly affected areas of interest (AOI) are inaccessible physically (due to blocked roads or elevation) or digitally (due to power outages and low bandwidth for communications). Assessment data about infrastructure damage, locations and resources of health care facilities, camps, NGO field offices, and the needs of vulnerable communities are useful to a variety of actors trying to solve a variety of different problems, such as, finding missing family members or determining accessible land routes for effective supply chain management for the distribution of food aid.

Luckily, access to information communication technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet, social media, mobile communications, and commercial remote sensing offers up cost efficient, rapid, and innovative ways to capture and analyze the growing and varied data exploding out of Nepal.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Different…now what?

Digital Globe and Google’s Skybox have offered up satellite imagery to the humanitarian community, free of charge so that platforms like Tomnod and Humanitarian Open Street Map (HOT) can harness the power of the crowd (literally thousands of online volunteers) to detect damage to homes, roads, and municipal buildings. UAViators (a volunteer network of professional and civilian UAV pilots spearheaded by QCRI) facilitate information sharing in humanitarian contexts by collecting and sharing enormous amounts of hi resolution fly over video streams with their drones. Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR), for example, is being used to process and filter the hundreds of thousands of Tweets pertaining to hashtags #NepalEarthquake and #NepalEarthquareResponse, so that organizations like Micro Mappers can assess damage in photos with the click of a mouse. The Standby Task Force has been activated to support information management and geo-spatial mapping of information resources for responders—they have prioritized and contributed valuable intelligence on urgent needs, photo and image collection, affected areas, camp information, and offers of assistance, according to their website. Much of this information is then uploaded to data dashboards, like Humanitarian Digital Exchange (HDX). Facebook and Google have both launched Safety Check and Person Finder apps to locate lost loved ones.

Source: Brookings (link opens in a new window)

Health Care