Using technology to stay ahead of disaster risk

By John Roome

Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded, over Mexico in October 2015. © NASA Earth Observatory

We’re witnessing an unprecedented uptick in record-breaking storms. In October last year, Hurricane Patricia came ashore in Mexico with record-breaking 200 mile-per-hour winds. A few months later on the other side of the world, Cyclone Winston broke records for Pacific basin wind speeds, destroying parts of mainland Fiji with 180 miles per hour winds. More recently, Cyclone Fantala became the most powerful storm in the Indian Ocean ever recorded.
 
Experts agree that activities by people are increasing the severity of storms like these. Climate change isn’t just projected to increase the intensity of hurricanes and cyclones, but a whole other range of other natural hazards, like droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves.

With population rising and more people moving to urban areas, and concentrating along coasts, vulnerabilities to certain natural hazards — such as sea level rise and hurricanes — is skyrocketing. The number of people living in flood-prone areas could increase by up to 17% in 2030 and between 50% and 90% by 2080 under climate change scenarios.
 
Drivers like climate change and shifting demographics are increasing global vulnerability to natural disasters — particularly in low-and middle-income countries. Since 1980, low-income countries have accounted for only 9% of disaster events but 48% of the fatalities, placing a huge strain on humanitarian aid. And although aid and development organizations are increasing investments in preparedness and resilience efforts, climate change is making the risk landscape more dynamic. It will take smarter, faster, innovative analytical tools to create the kind of up-to-date analysis of natural hazard risks that policy makers need to make long-term, risk-informed decisions.

The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) is a leader in generating, piloting, and analyzing disaster risk management tools for the dynamic risk landscape created by climate change. Last year alone, GFDRR helped 60 countries create, manage, and use risk information, often leveraging this information into larger investments in resilience.
 
 Through its Innovation Lab, GFDRR is developing new approaches to collecting, analyzing, and explaining risk data, such as risk visualization, open data, and crowd-sourcing efforts. These innovations are helping development professionals be more effective than ever in addressing the risk environment presented by a changing climate.

Surface deformation map of Fogo island volcano that erupted in late 2014. © ESA

Satellites have been providing spatial data for decades — data that track those record-breaking storms, help project rainfall, monitor urban development, assess regional flood risk, and more. That data has been largely out of the reach of most, due to cost, a lack of accessible software, and low capacity in a lot of countries that need the data most. The Innovation Lab has been working to make this make this data accessible and useful by collaborating with partners like the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI). The partnership is working to power open source technology and geospatial data sharing platforms and has helped over 100 million people gain access to risk information.
 
The Innovation Lab also created Code for Resilience, connecting local technologists and disaster risk experts to create civic-minded digital and hardware solutions to identify and reduce the risk posed by natural disasters. Another program, the Challenge Fund, provides funding ranging from $20,000 to $150,000 to support projects that have a disruptive impact in the space of risk assessment. It is currently supporting 15 creative approaches to understanding disaster risk in over 20 nations. One of those projects, Floodtags, collects data through Twitter for on-the-ground flood observations in the Philippines.
 
Soon the Innovation lab will launch ThinkHazard!, an innovative risk visualization tool that will help give decision makers information to make risk-informed choices. The first platform of its kind, ThinkHazard! allows users to quickly develop risk profiles on 8 different types of hazards. All information is open source and unrestricted by licenses which enables users to download all data freely. ThinkHazard! generates a non-technical interpretation of global hazards, empowering non-experts to determine the level of natural hazards in their locality and encouraging greater incorporation of risk management into project planning and design.

For more information, please visit thinkhazard.org

All of these programs and projects are showcased at the Understanding Risk Forum 2016 this week in Venice, Italy. Over 500 delegates are gathered to discuss the latest innovations and biggest challenges in managing disaster risk, with participation from insurance giants like FM Global, academic institutions such as Columbia University, media groups like the BBC Media Action, think tanks, civil society organizations, and more.
 
 As a changing climate continues to break extreme weather records around the globe, we’ll need the best technology, and a collaborative effort, to help us stay ahead of the storms.

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