Can technology hack hurricane relief?

By Daisy Kendrick, Founder, Ocean Generation

The three big hurricanes of 2017 — Harvey, Irma and Maria — are three of the five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history, according to the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the midst of natural disasters, technology is now increasingly a lifeline; from early warning systems and geographic information systems (GIS) to NASA’s ‘Finder’ device, used to rescue people trapped underground by detecting their heartbeats.

With such incredible innovation, it is almost unbelievable to think we still live in an age where hurricanes bring Small Island Developing States to their knees and survivors are often equipped only with rudimentary tools to survive and rebuild their lives.

Four months after Hurricane Irma ripped through Barbuda, 95 percent of the island remains uninhabitable, with no water, no electricity, no sanitation and local schools remaining closed. Like many Small Island Developing States, the inhabitants of Barbuda are now part of a growing international population of ‘climate refugees’.

Where are the data mapping tools to predict and mitigate the impact on communities? Where are the tools to crowd-source aid, evacuation and rebuilding efforts? How can we help people get cash to buy basic supplies when there is no power for credit cards to work?

In an era of increasingly extreme weather events we need to get better at using high and low-tech to ‘hack’ how we respond to storms and hurricanes. This is not only vital for alleviating vulnerable communities in the critical hours after disaster strikes, but for creating employment to sustain and diversify economies for future generations.

We are the most connected generation in history and digital Communications is key to helping SIDS adapt and co-exist with more extreme weather. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent’s (IFRC) annual World Disasters report found that more people in low and middle-income countries now have access to a mobile phone than to basic sanitation or reliable electricity. And the number continues to accelerate.

Yet we desperately need to find ways to keep communication networks online when power networks and WI-FI goes down. And this must sit alongside finding ways to reach older generations who don’t engage with digital communications as naturally or intuitively.

Communications must stay online for everyone, but particularly young people. Social media platforms are now so ingrained in the lives of young people that they play a crucial role during periods of national emergency. From Facebook’s ‘I’m Safe’ status, which helps to reunite and connect people, to Snapchat which recently became a go-to source for receiving and broadcasting real time storm alerts.

A really promising development is Mesh Networks. This nascent technology uses algorithms to forge connections without phone signal. A number of teams which recently took part in Ocean Generation’s hackathon in Antigua and Barbuda independently identified Mesh networks as the solution to support communities after storms. They devised an operations platform for communities, individuals and aid relief agencies to connect using Mesh Networks. This would play a role in solving a whole host of problems related to the after effects of hurricanes that were experienced in the last year.

This technology could supercharge the community effort that comes out in force after hurricanes and storms. During Hurricane Harvey, employees from a cell phone drying company, drove 1,000 miles towards the disaster to set up shop and help hundreds of people by fixing their phones and allowing them to re-connect with lost family members. Imagine how this type of business initiative could be scaled if powered effectively by social media.

With $10,000 of seed funding awarded from the United Nations Office of Project Services to the Hackathon winners, the Caribbean may have kick-started a potentially ground-breaking idea that could help save lives and provide relief, but also spark an important new regional tech cluster.

In five-months’ time the hurricane season is due to start again and one of the biggest issues on Barbuda will be the debris that remains, sitting ready to act as missiles for the next storm. The small community is fearful, and rightly so. This is the time for the world focus on technology solutions which provide hope for the future.

Photo caption: NOAA’s GOES-East satellite captured this visible image of Hurricane Harvey in the western Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 24, 2017. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

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