Disaster Management: Can Internet of Things Make a Difference?


What happens when disaster strikes? The answer depends, among other things, on where you are located. And if you live in a third-world, hot, crowded and messy country like India—all hell breaks loose.

Millions among India’s billion-plus citizens have seen that hell from up, close and personal: in the ruthless form of floods, earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides and other disasters that destroy lives, livestock and the lock, stock and barrels that help people sustain their existence.

In fact, as I write these lines, the country is in the midst of disastrous rains and flooding in several states across its length and breadth.

On such occasions, the administration goes into an overdrive, the army and paramilitary forces are called in and the voluntary organizations are roped in for relief work. But Nature’s fury often proves too much and, despite all their efforts and hard work, the scale at which misery unfolds in the aftermath is astounding.

Can technology play a role in anticipating, mitigating, controlling and managing this misery? And if so, to what extent and in what ways?

Those were the questions that came flooding to my mind as I attended the launch recently of a white paper titled “Internet of Things (IoT) for Effective Disaster Management.” The paper was brought out by Digital India Action Group (DIAG), a think tank set up by IT vendor lobby group MAIT for “ideating and monitoring policy initiatives to support the Indian Government’s mission of Digital India.”

The objective of the paper is “to create awareness and appreciation about the potential use and applications of IoT for different aspects of disaster management.”

Alongside, DIAG also released another white paper, “Aadhaar-Enablement: A Framework for Citizen-Centric Services”.


For the uninitiated, Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identity issued by the Government’s Unique ID Authority of India. Over 1 billion of these IDs have been given thus far in what is billed as the largest such exercise in the world.

While discussing Aadhaar and the potential of Aadhaar-based services is a Pandora’s box in itself, let me confine myself to IoT in disaster management for this post.

The role of IoT in disaster management, in keeping with the huge potential of this mother-of-all-technological-paradigm, is critical and wide-ranging. A multiplicity of agencies, infrastructure, devices, policies, and applications, among others, must come together to make the whole exercise “effective”, as the DIAG paper rightly highlights in its title.

The presence of a cross-section of officials and executives—from government, industry and consulting organizations (see pic)—is, one hopes, symbolic of the coordinated, on-ground effort that will be required in the days to come to give actual shape to the vision laid out in the document.

The IoT white paper recommends a “Seven-Point Action Plan” to shift from a “relief and recovery” model to “risk and vulnerability assessment” and address key issues and challenges related to management of natural and man-made disasters in India.

According to data from the IoT white paper, as much as 57% land area of India is vulnerable to earthquakes; 12% of this area is vulnerable to severe earthquakes. Besides, 68% land is vulnerable to drought, 12% land vulnerable to floods and 8%, to cyclones. The paper notes that many cities in India are also vulnerable to chemical, industrial and other man-made disasters.

The benefits of IoT in disaster management are easy to visualize (though difficult to implement, given the current realities of India): agencies can gain a clear picture of operations with real-time visibility of data as well as model data from multiple sources. This can further be transformed into accessible, actionable intelligence for faster, better-informed decisions. It is important, therefore, to create “a single, federated information hub.”

The paper calls for building an information backbone which all parties—government agencies, NGOs, infrastructure operators and community—can contribute to and work from.

One term in the paper that specifically caught my eye was “intuitive analytics” which seems to take the capabilities of the current big data analytics technologies to their optimal level.

In this context, SAP’s Lovneesh Chanana presented an insightful video of the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. After the disastrous floods in the year 2013, which resulted in loss of close to a hundred lives and millions of dollars, the Argentine capital decided to put sensors in over 30,000 storm drains that measure, as per this report on the SAP site, “the direction, level and speed of water.” One of the key technologies to gather and analyze this huge amount of data in real-time is SAP HANA.

Technologies like SAP HANA (or IBM Watson, for that matter) are not cheap to deploy for funds-starved governments. But consider the impact of not using the most advanced technologies: A World Bank forecast puts the annual losses from floods alone to reach as high as $1 trillion worldwide if cities don’t take preventive measures.

Each city, in my opinion, will need to take a deep view of what’s the best fit for it in terms of technologies, including IoT and the use of social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. (If you think lightly of the idea, pause for a moment to consider that the US Geological Survey, a government entity, runs a service called the Tweet Earthquake Dispatch (TED). Under this, there are two Twitter accounts that send out earthquake alerts: @USGSted and @USGSBigQuakes.)

I remember reading a report a few years ago that was in a way precursor to the TED service. When, in the US, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake shook the Northeast in 2011, many New Yorkers learned about it on Twitter—seconds before the shaking actually started. Tweets from people at the epicenter near Washington, D.C., outpaced the quake itself, providing a unique early warning system. (Conventional alerts, by contrast, were said to take two to 20 minutes to be issued.)

Technology is advancing at a much faster pace now, especially with machine learning, robotics and drones appearing more frequently in headlines than ever before.

What should the Indian government and industry players be doing in tackling disasters with IoT and other tools?

The DIAG white paper gives some recommendations, the MAIT DIAG Seven-Point Action Plan, which includes:


1. Release of cloud security and related guidelines as part of the Digital India policy framework.

2. Inclusion of ICT in Disaster Management in the National Skills Development Framework and Plan.

3. Release of IoT Policy for India.

4. Development of framework for continuous industry participation in planning for disaster management.

5. Back-end applications for asset management with disaster management authorities.

6. Knowledge portal for sharing experiences and best practices.

7. A comprehensive plan for prevention of cyber disasters.


Even if some of the above points are put into practice by a government-industry “action tank” (taking the think part to its logical conclusion), the disasters that certainly, unavoidably await the Indian multitudes can perhaps be mitigated and managed much better than before.

For CIOs, tech leaders and others who would like to dig deeper or get involved, here are some reference links:

- Revised Draft IoT Policy of the Government

- National Policy on Disaster Management

- India Disaster Resource Network

- UN ESCAP: ICT and Disaster Risk Reduction

 

(Image courtesy: Pixabay.com)

 

 

 

Categories: Internet of Things

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Sanjay Gupta

Sanjay Gupta is former Editor at Grey Head Media....

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