Documentary coverage of IGF-USA by the Imagining the Internet Center

Internet Governance Forum-USA, 2011 Best Practices Forum ICTs for Disaster Response: Transforming Emergency Management

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Brief description:

Responders are driving innovative uses of ICTs to transform emergency planning, intermediation and management. The Internet and social networking are being harnessed by search and rescue teams to locate and bring vital support to victims. ICTs are reassuring loved ones, bringing help to the stranded, raising financial aid, managing communications for responders and supporting rebuilding. This workshop explored the role communications, Internet and Internet-based applications play in disaster response and recovery operations and steps that can be taken to ensure continuity of operations following a disaster. It also considered the connection between disaster preparedness and Internet governance.

Details of the session:

Information and communication technologies are connecting public safety officials, allowing the efficient coordination of response operations and keeping citizens informed in new ways every day. Responders are driving innovative uses of ICTs to transform emergency planning, intermediation and management.

The Internet and social networking are being harnessed by search and rescue teams to locate and bring vital support to victims. The new Internet-based tools, mobile applications and social media that are transforming disaster relief efforts and empowering citizens were the focus of this workshop at the IGF-USA conference July 18 in Washington, D.C.

This session was moderated by Kelly O’Keefe, director of the Washington office of Access Partnership, a consultancy in international telecommunications trade, regulation and licensing. O’Keefe has a global knowledge base in the topic as she is also a rapporteur for an International Telecommunication Union study group on emergency communications.

The session’s panelists included:

  • Joe Burton, counselor for technology and security policy, Communications and Information Policy, U.S. State Department
  • Jim Bugel, assistant vice president for public safety and homeland security for AT&T
  • Corbin Fields, Sparkrelief, a non-profit Internet-based organization empowering communities to provide disaster relief, http://sparkrelief.org/#
  • Roland A. LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, Afilias
  • Keith Robertory, manager, disaster services technology, American Red Cross
  • Tim Woods, technical leader, Cisco Systems

Kelly O’Keefe started the discussion by referring to recent global disasters, from the earthquake in Haiti to the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.  These events have demonstrated the importance not only for disaster response, but for relief communication, especially for developing countries, she said.

The biggest trend in disaster communication has been the migration toward Internet-based communications, said Tim Woods of Cisco.  The influence and increased use of technology has become more widespread, and increasingly people turn to the Internet, particularly social media, to receive updates on events.  Social media, in particular, allow users to send updates to followers immediately in real time.

But despite the widespread prevalence of technology and response services across the globe, the United States does not have the authority to simply step in and start setting up an information system in any country experiencing a disaster.  There are differences when responding to a disaster in another country that aren’t problems in the United States.

When the Red Cross responded to the earthquake in Haiti, Keith Robertory said, “We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s get our suntan lotion and see what’s happening.’”

In addition to disseminating information to the public, the Red Cross had a responsibility to talk to the Haitian government and coordinate their needs among Red Cross organizations from other nations.

During such coordination efforts, U.S. organizations cannot make the same kinds of assumptions that they would usually make at home.  There are differences in technology cultures that must be taken into account when setting up a communications network during a disaster, said Robertory, of the American Red Cross.

Communicating during an emergency

There should be an interest in the swift restoration of communications infrastructures to save lives in a country experiencing a natural disaster, Joe Burton said.  There is a global trend toward catastrophic disasters.  In recent history, with the rise of the Internet and social networks, the Internet and text messaging are efficient uses of communications networks.

In terms of the big picture, there are more people with a basic phone, even a lower-end version, than there are who own PCs and TVs combined, said Vance Hedderel, of Afilias.  This bigger picture allows disaster response communications to understand how to reach people.  At this point in time, the phone is more effective than the Internet.  SMS data reach larger numbers of people.

Additionally, the goal of disaster communications should be to inform people experiencing the disaster first-hand.  “

A major gap currently exists where those people aren’t getting the necessary information and the outside world seems to know much more,” Hedderel said.  “Those issues become so paramount when there is little infrastructure in place.”

When sending out information over the Internet, Robertory said it is critical to hit all social media sites.  Since the emphasis is on getting information to the largest number of people possible, the disaster response teams have to reach their audiences across many platforms.

Establishing a network

From the service provider’s perspective, there is an emphasis on critical infrastructure during and after a catastrophic event, Woods said.  The networks to be used for information sharing should be reliant and resilient to disruption.  A capacity plan needs to be in place to handle an emergency.  What often happens is that networks become oversaturated immediately after a disaster, with users attempting to assure others of their safety or provide updates to the state of those affected.

Robertory likened establishing network capacity to a gym membership: “You hope that not everyone comes in to use the treadmills on the same day at the same time,” he said.

Although being able to handle the enlarged capacity that happens after a disaster event is important, a network is not sustainable if preparation for overcapacity becomes slow and expensive.  The goal is a balance of capitalism and altruism, life-saving and economy, to make money with the most efficient use of resources possible.

Despite the importance of developing effectively working technology systems, these will be largely useless if various agencies involved cannot work together.  Part of preparation is building relationships between agencies and determining who will communicate with whom.

“If you can build those relationships ahead of time, you have a better chance of getting through when disaster strikes,” Burton said.

Another side to preparedness involves having technology that works even in smaller situations, Robertory said.  Attempting to prepare a system for a big event from the start leaves too much room for errors when such a situation actually occurs.  If the system works for everyday emergencies, it allows time to test it and improve it for smaller upcoming events.

“It’s about being proactive, not reactive,” said Corbin Fields, of Sparkrelief.

– Carolyn VanBrocklin

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