Natural disasters are one of the most terrifying events in the world. Terrorism or a man-made disaster can be mitigated and prevented in the first place, but natural disasters are the most powerful forces in the world, with no way of stopping them.
We have seen in recent weeks with the devastation in Nepal, that the impact of these kinds of disasters can kill thousands, displace millions and irreversibly change a country. Many of the countries where these kind of natural disasters strike are also the poorest, meaning they are the least prepared to handle it and lack funds to rebuild effectively afterwards.
Big Data has a part to play in disaster relief in scenarios like this though. We have seen that since the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, that companies and governments have been trying to put systems in place that can harness the power of data.
It makes sense that Big Data can help in these kinds of situations simply by the fact that Big Data systems have inherently been created to find order in chaos and disaster zones are the very definition of chaos.
So what is being done?
A big part of any Big Data use in a disaster relief operation is going to come through the use of crowdsourcing and with the advent and large scale adoption of social media, this becomes a real possibility.
We have the capability to discuss a disaster within seconds thanks to the use of Twitter, Facebook, Youtube or countless other sites. This can give authorities key information without needing to interpret reams of data to find a hypothesis.
If somebody posts a picture of a collapsed building on Twitter, first responders will know that there is a site which may have people in within a certain area.
Having the ability to search through the huge amount of data on social media to find this kind of information is where Big Data has given a real advantage to the first responders.
When we are talking about sensing earthquakes, one of the most important aspects to being able to track them and quickly find out where the epicentre was then warn those in surrounding areas.
At present one of the only ways to do this is through the use of dedicated networks of sensors that allow seismologists to be able to see where the tremors have started from. The problem with these systems is that they are not only expensive to buy in the first place, but the maintenance of them is also incredibly expensive.
The truth about these networks though, is that despite the sensors needing to have special treatment and calibration, they have a lot in common with the sensors that many find in their smartphones, which gives scientists the possibility of crowdsourcing a sensor network. It is something that is commonly done through the use of wifi hotspots and GPS in traffic management and location services.
Although this would not always be possible (if an earthquake took place 20 miles out to sea, the chances of many people with smartphones being nearby would be remote), but in many areas it would be possible to use these kinds of sensors to be able to bring together several different data sets to create an overall picture.
Especially in areas where the state is poor, but many of the citizens will still carry smartphones and high tech equipment, it becomes possible to use this network effectively.
At present, there is no real way to use this kind of information in good time due to data protection in many areas of world, but as we saw with the opening of mobile data in the Ebola affected areas of Africa, in exceptional circumstances these data rules can, and should, be overruled for the greater good.
Google’s People Finder, Facebook’s People Check
One of the biggest destructive factors of a natural disaster is that people are displaced en-masse.
This can leave millions of people with no way of telling their loved ones where they are and if they are safe, whilst their loved ones can be going through emotional turmoil not knowing where they are.
Through using specifically created social media channels such as Google’s People Finder and Facebook’s People Check, people can upload information to let their loved ones to let them know where they are and have it added to a database to help track them down.
The problem that many people have in disaster areas is that they lose access to some of the most basic services like food and water, let alone access to the internet. Therefore the importance of these services come from their ability to have information uploaded through SMS, which requires far less infrastructure.
Crowd Sourced Mapping
When US Marines landed at the 2010 Haiti Earthquake they commended the usefulness of the interactive map that was created through a crowd sourced collaboration and pointing them towards the places where they could do the most good.
Having the ability to map where the most help is needed is vital to being able to effectively save lives in a disaster zone. If people know where the relief teams would have the most benefit and then point the authorities towards that area, then it becomes possible to optimize the recovery process.
Not only that, but it helps in protecting potential high priority areas during a natural disaster. This could be a power plant before a tsunami hits or a particularly highly populated area that should be a priority in order to save as many lives as possible.