Saving lives and managing disasters with technology

Key takeaways

  • Responding to natural disasters and large-scale emergencies is difficult at the best of times.
  • Common problems include evaluation, communication, volunteer numbers and access.
  • Technologies can help to overcome these challenges, enabling aid to reach people in need.

When a natural disaster hits, there’s often very little time to prepare or evacuate. In the ensuing chaos, mobile phone networks often overload or go down, electricity goes out and people are left disconnected.

Innovation alone can’t protect people entirely from Mother Nature’s immense force. Floods, fires, hurricanes and earthquakes are tremendously dangerous, only sometimes possible to detect, and impossible to prevent.

However, a range of technologies are altering the way people respond to emergencies, providing information, reassuring those affected and ultimately, saving lives. Here are four ways tech is helping those in need in managing disasters:

Social connection in emergencies

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Twitter didn’t exist. Facebook wasn’t open to the public. The iPhone hadn’t been invented. Yet a little over ten years later, social media is playing a large – and largely unexpected – role in emergency management.

In early 2011, Tropical Cyclone Yasi struck the coast of Queensland, Australia, leading to massive flooding. In the state, the fledgling social media team at the Queensland Police  became the source of truth for the disaster.

They pushed out information, corrected rumours, live-tweeted press conferences and passed on messages from other agencies. The team hadn’t aimed to become a world leader in the use of social media during disasters. Their actions just seemed to make sense as a quick way of getting information out.

Intuition proved correct. Queensland Police Service’s social following on Facebook rose from 17,000 likes to 100,000 in 24 hours¹.  In 2013, after multiple examples of people and organisations using the platform in similar scenarios, Twitter itself rolled out an emergency feature allowing official agencies to tweet emergency alerts.

As the US and Caribbean are battered by flooding and storms following hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the transformative effect of social media as a means to communicate and coordinate has become self-evident. The City of Port Arthur in Texas has been using its Twitter presence to share locations for food, donation points and in one instance, going so far as to ask the wider world to come to their aid with boats.

The University of Western Australia’s Dr Billy Haworth, whose research focuses on citizen social media use during and before bushfires, points out that digitally volunteering information – such as updates from people in and around an emergency – is about more than just applying technology. Rather, it is “about people sharing their knowledge and mapping collaboratively as a social practice.”²

Sharing the responsibility

This social practice can be seen in the way apps are being used in disasters. In the wake of Harvey and lead up to Irma, websites began sharing lists of useful apps to download in preparation. Carpooling, gas-finding, first aid and apps to notify friends and family of safety were prevalent.

Some apps, such as Serval Mesh and ZombieChat, allowed people to use their phones without Wi-Fi and/or network coverage. These apps utilise peer-to-peer Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to enable mobile phone use without the need for a provider’s network. This essentially allows people to connect via the power of the social collective.

Walkie-talkie app Zello has enabled the Cajun Navy, a citizen’s brigade of volunteers and their boats, to crowdsource and coordinate emergency responders. It has quickly become the top app in the Apple app store (US), with over a million users downloading it in 24 hours³. Those in need of help can use it to broadcast their situation to the community. Volunteers then log, triage and liaise with the ‘navy’ to come to their aid. With official emergency responders stretched thin, every person able to help is a potential life saved.

Sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and Lyft have also rallied their numbers around those requiring assistance. Airbnb, which has its own emergency response program, has reached out to nearby safe communities to offer free temporary accommodation to evacuees. Uber has capped their prices to stop unfair rises, and both it and Lyft offered free rides to evacuation shelters.

Given that people often don’t evacuate when instructed to do so because they have nowhere to go, no money to get or stay elsewhere, or a lack of mobility to move, the importance of such endeavours can’t be underestimated.

Telemedicine in light of trauma

One area in which digital technology is having a profound effect is in medical treatment and the use of telemedicine. Evacuees are often in need of first aid and advanced medical treatment. Walking through floodwaters, for example, can expose people to all sorts of infection-breeding nasties. Prescription medicine runs out (or is forgotten in the rush to evacuate). A range of dangerous maladies can be brought on by the stress of the situation.

As in the case of Hurricane Katrina, medical evacuees are often hard to get to, isolated in pockets surrounded by floodwaters. An added complication, as reported in the case of Hurricane Harvey, is that most of the evacuees (by a ratio of almost three to one) are children4. Faced with an already traumatic circumstance, further alienating an ill child by taking them away from their families to an overrun emergency room is hardly ideal.

Medics on the ground are often trained to treat adults, and not versed in the particulars of paediatric care. Telemedicine provides a solution, allowing virtual patient care. With an internet connection and a few enabled devices, paediatric doctors can assess the severity of a patient and advise next steps without needing to be at the site.

Connected stethoscopes can be used to listen to a child’s breathing or heart and family histories can be gained from the family members sitting alongside. Meanwhile, doctors, in high demand in the ER, can switch from virtual to physical, efficiently caring for more people from the one location.

Plus, tackling one of the common problems faced by emergency first-responders – a lack of trained physicians – telemedicine is simple enough that its administration, and physical coordination of its digital tools, can be carried out by non-medics. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, for instance, by the induction of Texas State Guard soldiers.

Managing disasters with drones

The use of drones in search and rescue has been much written about, but it has limitations. A drone requires a pilot and the know-how to coordinate a search. In a large area affected by a natural disaster, the sheer amount of people needed to be truly effective is difficult to come by, let alone organise.

New York’s University at Buffalo is working on a solution that would allow teams of drones to self-organise in swarms – autonomous as individual machines, but also as a collective – in order to map oil spills5. Collections of drones evaluate where they are flying – over oil, water or an edge – in order to quickly map out the size and location of a spill.

These drones need to be able to fly together and not into each other or physical objects, as well as ensuring they don’t go over an area that’s already been mapped. In a disaster, where one of the common hurdles in response is in evaluating the size and parameters of a catastrophe, this could be used to mobilise and respond effectively and quickly.

Able to access difficult or dangerous-to-reach places, swarms of drones could be used to map destruction, evaluate infrastructure for safety, provide supplies, find missing or injured people and identify potential further hazards.

Digital disaster management

As with all technology, the value is in the application of its use. In managing disasters, there are multiple use-cases where this is proven.

The need for quick assessment of an event, access to those impacted, ability to get information to and from those people, and the requirement for further volunteers can all be addressed with technology, enabling a better and more effective response.

As an added benefit, it is in the use of these technologies – much of it organic and unofficial in nature – that the best of humanity can be seen.


Dr Amy Gibbs

Amy is the Editor in Chief for Digital Pulse, PwC Australia