Future Of Disaster: How Tech Can Improve Humanitarian Response

The world is plagued by disaster on a daily basis, whether it be man made or a force of nature. But just like it has done with so many other areas of human existence, the advancements in technology could allow us to drastically improve our prevention methods and response efforts when it comes to the horrible topic of disaster.

Of course, no one can guess what the future entails, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated predictions. As such, we have compiled a list of ways in which we believe the next generation of technology may improve this area of life.

An Increase In Funding

As it stands today, we spend around $25 billion annually on providing assistance to those people that have been drastically affected by natural disasters and wars. That figure is spent by the international community as a collective. Of course, it is impossible to put a figure down when it comes to helping those that urgently require life-saving assistance, however, the United Nations strongly believes that an additional $15 billion a year is needed as a matter of urgency. The additional funding would be spent on much-needed technological advancements in the area of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, both of which would improve our ability to offer humanitarian existence in the three most important ways possible; time-effective, cost-efficient and higher survival rate.

Self-Sufficiency Is Needed

At the moment we operate under a top-down approach, which is something that humanitarian organisations the world over have voiced their concern over, and this voice is finally being heard. As such, we are hopeful that the future of humanitarian assistance will see a complete reversal whereby technology will be made available to the beneficiaries that need it. This isn’t so much about getting technophobes into tech; it is about getting those who don’t even know about the latest tech advancements proficient in using it. This will not only enable them to have a say in their survival when the time comes, it will also provide them with the tools to better organise themselves instead of relying solely on rescue teams and humanitarian organisations. Obviously, this is a change that is needed immediately but, as with everything that operates under a bureaucratic system, who knows how long it could take for this switch to take place.

Prevent Not Aid

There has been a drastic shift in the way technology aims to deal with natural disasters, with more and more advancements focussing on the need to prevent and limit the damage as opposed to assisting when it is too late. On the flooding side of things, HEC-RAS modelling programs are the leading light, able to monitor the hydraulics of natural water flow, evaluate floodway encroachments, modify channels and provide dam breach analysis to name just a few. By sharing and using this data we will be able to prevent the damage of all sorts of natural flooding. Earthquakes are another area where technology is making huge improvements on all fronts. Levitating foundations, shock absorbers, shut down systems on high-speed transport, pendulum power and replaceable fuses. Pointing the focus on technology in this direction is one of the most important variables when it comes to reducing the damage of natural disaster inflicted on human-lives.

Data Sharing Improvements

The one thing technology repeatedly manages to do is improve our ability to share information and connect at faster rates, to the extent that most of the things we are able to engage with nowadays are up-to-the-second reports. Even social media has headed that way with its live video function, something that may be able to improve response times if used wisely. For example, by having a live video function we are able to put the beneficiaries of a natural disaster, or even a war, in the driving seat a bit more by allowing them to provide response efforts to see real-time data. Sharing data gives us is improved efficiency. The big issue that is crippling this progress, however, is the lack of collaboration. We have the technology to allow us to improve our efforts, but we need to be more comfortable with sharing the information we have gathered with other humanitarian organisations, something that needs to be tackled on a political level as much as anything. Technology holds much of the key, but it still requires someone to turn it.

Improved Security Protocols

This links with the point above, which is what makes it such an important area for the future of technology in the area of humanitarian response. The world is not a wish-making factory full of nothing but rainbows, roses and unicorns that smell of Nutella. No. The world is full of dangers and one of the most prolific areas in that respect is data. You see, data can be – and is – used to harm people, and the data collected by humanitarian organisations involves some of the most vulnerable people on the planet where threat models are rife. As such, there needs to be an increased focus on data security and end-to-end encryption. Serious security protocols are absolutely necessary in order to protect the vulnerable, while also encouraging an economy of sharing among organisations.

Money Moving Needs

One area that technology has had a massive improvement in assisting those in need of assistance in with moving money. Nothing in this world is free and the cost of humanitarian response and assistance can be extremely high, not to mention being able to support those individuals that have lost everything. So our ability to now move money to those places that need it and offer a relief package of cash is something that is commonly cited by relied aids as extremely beneficial. There is always room for improvement, we know that, but electronic payments have made it so that money gets to those people who need it in a timely fashion, at cost-effective rates and securely. The last point is of crucial importance. Good work, technology.

Technology Used Properly

This is something that we need to focus on more as a collective unit because no matter how fast we can come up with the next advancement of tech if we don’t know how to effectively use it then we aren’t moving forward as fast as we can. That isn’t the only area of concern, though. The other area we need to really concentrate our focus is improved clarity. We need to be clear on what technology we are using, why we are using it and what outcome we hope it will have. We need to amalgamate the tool with the problem. Let’s take the latest craze in technology, which is undeniably the rise of drones. There is absolutely no denying that these bits of kit can be essential when it comes to assessing the situation of a natural disaster and knowing exactly what a response team is faced with. However, they can only solve-problems and do so efficiently if they are used to the best of their ability, and that means using them to complement the other assessment tools available, while also having a clear idea of what data you require to do a better job.

Social Media Favoritism

There is no denying the good that has come out of social media when it comes to humanitarian needs. This is largely to do with the fact so many people around the world are familiar with the way in which social media works. As such, a lot of communities have been able to hold agencies to account, highlighting problems that have arisen and casting a light on where money is being spent. We have seen this with those that have been relocated from war torn countries and into sub-standard refugee camps where conditions are no better. The problem is seeing the big picture. A lot of people, millions and millions, do not have access to social media or any such technology and so it is increasingly easy to forget about them. That is where social media can have a hugely adverse effect on what we are trying to achieve as an international community in the hope of aiding those that need it most. We run the risk of forgetting those that are more vulnerable than everyone else. This is something that emergency agencies will surely start to understand more and more.

Better Prepared Organisations

A few times throughout this article, we have mentioned that technology on its own is not enough and that we need to focus on the organisations and individuals using it too. That requires an ongoing solution whereby we are able to train organisations and local response teams in a way that we reshape assistance methods and bring them up to date. Technology is a huge part of improving our ability to help those affected by war and natural disaster, but it is far from being the entire solution. It is just a cog, and without being able to educate those that are using it we will continue to be faced with a situation whereby tech is only as good, bad, neutral, misused or misguided as those that are in control. This is something that will surely see much more proactivity in the coming years. Luckily, technology has improved the way we learn as much as anything and these advancements in teaching could be the answer to better use of the tech itself.

About Will Chatham

Will Chatham is a Cyber Security Analyst, Ethical Hacker, and Penetration Tester at a federal data center in Asheville, NC. Since Netscape 2.0, he has worked in a wide array of environments including non-profit, corporate, small business, and government. His varied background, from developer to search engine optimizer to security professional, has helped him build a wide range of skills that help those with whom he works and teaches.
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