Location Intelligence, Spatial Data Analysis | Pitney Bowes

Planning for disaster

Critical insight for planners, developers and every-day citizens

By Rubini Narayanan, Sr. Data Modeler, Data Org.

A recent article at the Huffington Post blog featured an interview with Francis Ghesquiere, Head of the Secretariat for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR).  After reading this piece, titled “How innovation is changing the way we look at disaster risk,” I thought about my recent trip to Kathmandu and about what it means to build a safer world. 


It’s troubling that so many people continue to put themselves and their infrastructure at risk. Ghesquiere notes that people are flocking to cities, particularly in the developing world where infrastructure isn’t built to withstand the typical local hazards. He cites the tradeoffs developers face. In Bhutan, for example, there’s fantastic hydropower potential, but the country is also in a very active seismic zone.  It’s hard to watch countries make economic-development choices without fully understanding and planning for risk.


I was excited though, that the GFDRR is taking action to help. Ghesquiere notes: "We have a huge challenge – but also a huge opportunity – to try to make sure the trillions of dollars that will go into new housing, new infrastructure, the extension of cities... do not increase risk exposure but rather reduce it."


They’ve developed ThinkHazard!, a tool that pinpoints eight potential risks and the threats they pose.  In some places, like India, Nepal, Indonesia and more, it can take days for catastrophes to be reported. Tools like ThinkHazard! can help to reach those who are left without access to resources, so disaster management groups can be more effective in a crisis.  But the benefits start long before a crisis hits.  It also enables better preparation.  Now local officials are aware of site-specific hazards such as mining, ground water depletion and soil erosion. The data and mapping community can help by enriching geographic data with points of interest such as schools, medical offices and transportation nodes. ThinkHazard! can integrate this local information to fine tune the algorithms that predict potential hazards in the area.


Unfortunately, disaster preparation is often given less support than disaster response. I recently spoke with a district authority in India about flooding in Chennai. He told me there is no restriction on funds or manpower for rescue operations during disasters. I asked why more isn’t spent in advance to identify and mitigate for risks before they happen. I am sure there are a lot of funds spent on mitigation, but do we do it right?  In Chennai, India this would mean understanding the best evacuation route and the safe sites to locate the population during flooding. The data is available. Local authorities need access, and they need to put it to use.


Today’s high-resolution elevation models help to identify geohazards and can also provide valuable insight for city planning and development. For instance, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data for coastal cities would determine the elevation of the coastal shoreline as well as the houses nearby. With this type of understanding, it would be possible to significantly reduce losses for incidents like the big typhoon that hit Manila. Combining high-resolution datasets with machine-learning techniques, one can identify suitable home sites an evacuation routes to use in the case of different hazards.


During my reconnaissance in Kathmandu, a local restaurant owner told me tthat frequent drills for earthquake preparedness have reduced loss of life. Know your potential hazards. Plan around them. Plan for them. And you can significantly reduce human and economic loss.


ThinkHazard! is a great tool. Kudos to the team that developed it. Now, it’s our responsibility to help to ensure that it reaches every school, hospital, NGO and government agency in the remote parts of the world. Together we can make a difference.