Disasters, both natural and man-made, have afflicted a great amount of damage to living and non-living beings since time immemorial. While ancient methods of disaster mitigation such as developing barriers, getting alerted via abrupt bird and animal movements and sounds and archaic methods of relaying data did prove beneficial, they weren’t foolproof. Owing to lack of close integration, many a times, these methods failed to get the intended result. The advent of the Information Technology (IT) age led to interesting developments in the field of disaster management. For not only did IT help us in formulating disaster mitigation strategies years, if not decades, in advance, they also led to a lot of lives and property being saved in the process. But how does IT help avert disasters? What sort of integration does it follow? Let’s dig in.

The most important element to identifying disasters is to create maps. This depends on the image resolution capabilities of the satellite in question. The higher the resolution capacity, the more intricate the picture can be. And this is crucial in identifying a disaster hotspot not just in the event of a disaster taking place but also to map areas that may face disasters in the near future. Using satellite imagery to build a database of evolving landscapes is crucial in this regard. Using climatology and terrestrial maps over a period of 2-3 decades can help in this regard. In this respect, tying up with meteorological and disaster management departments is the best way forward. 

While satellite imagery can help us in getting prepared for disasters in advance, what about ground mobilisation in the event that disaster does strike? As it happened during the 2015 Chennai Floods and during 2018 Hurricane Irma in USA, rescue efforts undertaken using geo-tagging and sharing live location of people stuck in danger zones led to a lot of lives being saved. Not only did this help in precise deployment of rescue forces, it also led to identification of vulnerable areas that were and would face the most risk if such a disaster were to strike again. The use of the #hashtag proved to be a blessing here. Using this tool, people were able to communicate via Twitter and Facebook and get help. 

Now, if we combine the historical record of a place experiencing disasters with the number of requests from people in an area affected by that disaster, this would yield a treasure trove of data. Building upon the same, governments and city planners can build better embankments in case of flooding or structurally sound buildings in case of earthquakes. The 2015 Chennai floods, one of the worst natural disasters in India, witnessed a surge in social media campaigning to ensure that the worst affected areas received help as soon as possible. Thanks to reliable data from satellite monitoring, residents of many US states vulnerable to the storm were able to evacuate in time and get to safe zones. 

Such a technology can be implemented even in areas struck by human made disasters. Election monitoring firm Ushahidi is one such contender. The Nairobi based startup made an interesting application that could track and report incidences of real time violence in conflict ridden nations. Created by concerned bloggers and software developers in the backdrop of the 2007 Presidential elections in Kenya, it tracked and mapped the post-election violence. The methodology they adopted to monitor the same was not only effective but also low cost. 

The possibilities that big data holds to combat disaster are nearly limitless. With advances in communication technology and e-literacy, managing disasters will become a manageable if not avoidable venture.

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