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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Sunday, April 24, 2005

ICTs and Disaster Warning

World Dialogue on Regulation: "Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Lead centre: LIRNEasia - Contacts: Rohan Samarajiva & Ayesha Zainudeen,
Hazards arise in the physical world. The hazard, if it is witnessed by human beings is warning in itself; the advice that is given to the citizens of Hawai'i about local tsunamis that may be created by proximate earthquakes exemplifies this: "your feet are your signal; if you feel an earthquake, head for high ground." If the hazard goes unnoticed by humans and the detection devices employed by humans, like an underwater landslide for instance, the hazard could not only become a disaster, but it would go undetected by the human world. The aim of disaster warning is to prevent a hazard from becoming a disaster. In order to accomplish this, accurate and credible warning must be communicated to the vulnerable population as rapidly as possible, as far in advance of the physical effects as possible. That is, the physical occurrence must be represented in the symbolic world as soon as possible.
ICTs are critical to this action; they allow for the centralized detection of impending disaster and rapid, decentralized dissemination of the warning to a vulnerable population. Once a hazard has been detected, the immediate transmission of this information from where the hazard has occurred to where scientists and experts are located for assessment relies on telecom networks and satellite links. The occurrence of the earthquake off Sumatra on December 26 2004 was known on the other side of the world in Hawai’i at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center almost as it ended 500 seconds after, and was communicated to warning centers across the Pacific within 11 minutes. Information from a hazard site can be automatically communicated to any point in the world in roughly the same time, whether it is 1 or 1000 miles from the detection site. The implication of this is that existing global warning systems can be easily expanded, and need not be duplicated to cover extra ground. The marginal cost of covering an extra location will entail the cost of the extra sensor and the additional communication link cost.
ICTs complement an all-hazard approach to disaster warning; they allow for hazard information detected by different detection agencies, with their own areas of expertise, to be fed into a central decision body, from which a warning message may be issued. The need for rapid transfer of information in this process cannot be overstated.
The general public is also an important source of hazard information (which can be verified on receipt by authorities). Facilities such as short-codes and emergency call centers capable of handling the reception of large numbers of calls and assessment of information are primary considerations. The private sector and civil society can also play large roles in serving as information sources, with their country-wide presence and communication infrastructure.
Stand-alone non-public networks – such as those sometimes used by security forces and utilities can provide useful communication links that are not subject to congestion in times of disaster.
Once the hazard information has been assessed and the risks and potential impacts have been evaluated, many options exist for the dissemination of warning. Telecom networks (fixed and mobile) can be made use of in a decentralized manner up to the point where they reach capacity and crash. Once a network crashes, getting calls across is virtually impossible. Call prioritization and load-shedding arrangements are useful tools that can alleviate this problem. Similarly SMS [short messaging system], although subject to congestion, as proved on December 26, 2004 and March 29 2005, it can be useful means for the public to communicate and warn their contacts before the media was even able to get the warning out (i.e., before networks reach capacity). It provides a useful means of receiving hazard information at the civilian level (which can then be verified) between countries.
It is important to note that disasters rarely affect entire nations at a time; in this instance, targeted warnings are required, to avoid panic and confusion across the entire nation. Cell broadcasting provides a practical means to disseminate targeted, uniform warning through mobile phones, without being subject to congestion. Low-powered radio broadcasting also allows for targeted warning.
The deployment of Common Alerting Protocol, involving pre-determined standard language for the warning message in digital format, is enabled by ICTs; it allows for uniform language to be used, increasing accuracy and avoiding confusion.
In developing countries however, where income levels cannot ensure universal access to Internet and telephones (including mobile), the means of communicating the warning to the last mile must be diverse and redundant.
Television and radio broadcasting are especially relevant in low-income, low-teledensity countries such as Sri Lanka; television penetration is 75% and radio penetration is 77% while only 23% of households have access to any form of telecommunication, fixed or mobile (most recent data). Channels of warning that make use of low-cost ICTs that are not only available, but in constant use by these communities at the last mile are most effective. Examples would include remote activation of such devices is a feasible option for such countries, and low-power radio broadcasting. But until ICT penetration reaches a sufficiently high level, warning can and must be complemented by more traditional means such as community loud-speakers, sirens, megaphones, etc.
Disaster warning can be considered a public good and has conventionally been provided by government. Warning (in itself) is to a large extent non-excludable and non rivalrous, it possesses sufficient public good characteristics for it to, according to traditional economic theory, be undersupplied by the market. In this case, there is a case for the bundling of this ‘public good’ with private goods (such as insurance policies) to bring forth supply of warning. When embedded in various technologies however, warning becomes excludable and rivalrous. Given the required regulatory environment to enable the optimal use of ICTs in the disaster warning process and importantly, some kind of indemnifying legislation to protect private agents acting in good faith, there is a case for the private provision of disaster warning. Private actors with sufficient economic incentives to provide public disaster warning, strengthened with a sense of corporate social responsibility can be identified to take on the task of public warning. Key examples identified in light of the events of 26.12.04 and 29.03.05 are the insurance industry, the tourist industry and the (electronic) media industry.
All this being said, the lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami indicate that without a framework in place (that is pre-defined communication structure, protocols, etc), warning of an impending disaster has little chance of reaching the ‘last mile.’ In order for the optimal deployment of ICTs in disaster warning, regulatory obstacles must be addressed, for example, enabling low-powered broadcasting. On the part of the ICT sector, much planning and coordination is needed beforehand to enable optimal performance of networks and systems during a disaster situation. Further, the importance of education and awareness raising in disaster preparedness must be underscored if warning is to be effective."


Anonymous Christopher said...

Your blog is great! It's hard to find blogs with good content and people talking about call centers these days! I have a public call centers blog if you want to come leave me a comment or two! May I put a link to this blog of yours on mine?  


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