How social media can play a major role in disaster forecasting and recovery

November 22, 2012

–Julian Hunt is Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology and the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre. Joy Pereira is Deputy Director of SEADPRI, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. The opinions expressed are their own.–

The UN Climate Change Summit in Qatar will be negotiating levels of funding for adaptation against climate change. Social media, which can reduce impacts of disasters through community involvement and improved real-time management, must receive effective and rapid use of such funds.

Social media is increasingly joining public broadcasts and targeted radio messages as a means for central organisations, including government, to communicate forecasts and advisory information to people in affected areas ahead of a disaster, and effective advice during and after one.

Satellite observations and computer predictions may make accurate real-time forecasting of factors such as wind, waves and flooding possible several days ahead of the tracks of tropical cyclones, but, as with Nagi, which devastated Burma in 2010, thousands of casualties can occur in the poorest remote communities because there are no telecommunications providing warnings based on them. Many countries are now strengthening the structures that support such communication systems.

The Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards in Manila is using mobile phones during the course of disasters in the Philippines to allow expert centres to receive informal observations from individuals.

Data about water levels in streets, and damage that is occurring as a result of flooding are particularly valuable in large urban areas.  Even gauge data, supported by remote sensing from aircraft or satellites, plus the most detailed flood computer models, such as those at Delft University of Technology, require updates on water depth and the direction and strength of water currents, as they are affected by obstructions such as collapsing buildings, floating trees, and vehicles.

With this additional data, computer predictions at expert centres can be corrected and communicated to affected communities. During the post-disaster recovery phase, input from local communities can help with allocating funds and providing advice about better protection for the future.

Governmental agencies are increasingly aware that even when official communications in affected areas formally exist, informal information can be quicker. Flooding along rivers that cross borders can be conveyed quicker by mobile phone communications between communities than by formal channels for cross border data exchange, which are often still too slow (and sometimes non-existent).

Even when no particular disaster is on the horizon, communities can (as q-cumber in Italy is doing) collaborate with government in publicising unregulated sources of pollution, or destruction of biodiversity, which can be critical for preserving environmental safeguards such as sand dunes that protect coastal communities against storms and tsunami. These were wantonly removed along the Sri Lanka coast before 2004 and are being removed now in Vietnam.

Socialisation of environmental technology will save many lives and can have enormous benefits. This transformation will probably happen anyway, but governments need to be brave to make it happen sooner.

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