When Disaster Strikes: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Humanitarian Aid

Photo courtesy of Valerie Hadoux via Flickr

In the midst of a crisis, humanitarian technology is relied upon to help those affected.

From maps to apps, here are some of many digital solutions for disaster relief that can do just about all but actually stop disasters from happening.

Prevention and preparation

Screenshot courtesy of AmRedCross via Youtube.

While there is no stopping a hurricane or typhoon, technology has been helping us detect dangerous weather patterns for years. Tools like Tera SMS now can send mass warning texts; the American Red Cross’ Digi-DOC aggregates social data so authorities know where trouble is.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”N9d8VDz1mP4bpSXbgiZrgaBKzrcRqBwp”]In the case of disease epidemics, such as the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, information is the most powerful tool to help prevent contagion. Israeli company Snapp created a simple app called About Ebola, which reprogrammed in various languages of affected regions, and has been downloaded 5,000 times by villages’ residents.

Then there’s an innovative UV light device by US company Surfacide that can sterilize areas to prevent infection, which has been donated to be used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone.

There’s even been talk of IBM’s Watson supercomputer getting involved to manage the outbreak, as well as groundbreaking cell phone data models that could help predict its spread.

Relief and connectivity

Photo courtesy of barefootcollege via Flickr.

With the Middle East ravaged by the Islamic State, there are people like the Yazidis that have been trapped and vulnerable, in conditions not unlike the aftermath of a hurricane. The British government was able to deliver aid to the Yazidis, which included 1,000 solar-powered lanterns with attached mobile chargers.

Then there’s Dr Paul Gardner-Stephenre, whose Serval Project provides a mesh network for disaster survivors, allowing them to communicate when connectivity is down. “There’s plenty of technology for rich white men,” he told the BBC. “It’s the rest of the world that needs our help.”

And while the ratio of technology recipients is certainly still skewed, relief technology is getting better and better — including drone deliveries, advanced water purifiers, LuminAID’s inflatable solar power lights, and “concrete canvas” shelters.

Additionally, the Department of Defense has, with several partnerships, developed a mapping system called GeoSHAPE — open-architecture software that dynamically displays data on a map, and lets authorized users contribute to build a comprehensive picture that aids decision making.

Search and rescue

Photo courtesy of Sandia Labs via Flickr.

You can keep people alive and connected in the aftermath of a disaster, but only if they’re safe from harm. For those whose lives are urgently threatened, technology is able to locate survivors and get them to safety.

Rescue robots were first tested after 9/11, but they’ve advanced since then considerably. Modern rescue robots are designed to go ahead of rescue workers to determine safety in danger zones; others can even medically treat victims.

As for searching, a new radar-based technology called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) was developed by the Department of Homeland Security and NASA in 2013, which can detect heartbeats of living individuals trapped under rubble.

One thing is clear: Nature and humanity aren’t always good, and technology isn’t always the bad guy. Disaster isn’t going away anytime soon — but the technology built to solve these complex problems points to a bright future in reducing the impact and harm of forces still beyond our control.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert