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Preventing loss of life and limb and limiting damage in disasters requires information that draws on the knowledge of local people and helps them react, reports Ochieng’ Ogodo.

When disaster strikes, data and information are crucial but rarely available, Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, a Nairobi-based online open source software developer, told the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December).

“Reliable information saves lives,” she emphasised. It was part of the solution in humanitarian emergencies but the existence of information was not enough: it had to be accessible.

"We can collect data but we need to digitise and leverage its use through technologies like cell phones," she said.

Accessibility was a theme of the Abu Dhabi conference, the deliberations and recommendations from which will feed into Rio+20, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil in June 2012.

Accessibility was also tackled by many of the delegates from governments, international bodies and nongovernmental organisations who spoke on disaster management during the meeting — where the topic was featured as a “special initiative”.

Participants in the special initiative discussions wanted to establish an "Eye on Earth disaster forum for mutual sharing and advice" that would include donor agencies and the private sector. Its aims would be to reduce risk of disasters, to improve response rates and to accelerate recovery.

Crucial issues for discussion at Rio+20, said Helena Molin Valdes, director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disasters Reduction, included improving access to knowledge that people had learned by experience, and making data and information available to decision-makers.

Poor neighbourhoods

"There is a communication gap that leaves people, especially the poor, vulnerable to natural disasters," she said. One of the biggest problems in urban centres, for example, was that city managers lacked systems that worked with people to leverage information during floods — particularly in poor neighbourhoods.

"We need to study environmental cycles, listen to historical information and then put the information into mapping for disaster preparedness and management," she said.

Taking up a constantly recurring issue in the Abu Dhabi discussions, Milen Dyoulgerov, a specialist in adaptation and disaster risk management with the World Bank, said one of the challenges for disasters response was building capacity to absorb and access information and turn it into guidance for responding to disaster.

He also called for help in enabling policymakers to access tools demonstrated during the conference: "From satellite stations you need sensors on the ground, but even more crucial is the acquisition of the right technologies and their maintenance for management of disasters.” It was, for example, “ridiculous” for equipment worth millions of dollars to lie idle because of lack of electricity when disasters struck.

Warnings and action

Such technologies needed to be specific to their location and appropriate for users: "Solutions must come from local communities, local and national governments." he said.

But for technologies to succeed, said Matthias Schmale of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, behavioural changes were needed, including the need for policymakers to heed warnings and take action.

For instance, an appeal for humanitarian assistance for the Horn of Africa last year generated no response until famine killed many people and livestock. Information could exist alongside lack of action, he warned.

Or, in the language of a conference “white paper” on tackling disasters, “Over the past 20 years, as GIS [geographic information systems] technology has become more pervasive across the world, governments, regions, and various communities of interest have developed mechanisms for the effective coordination and sharing of geospatial information across traditional political and institutional boundaries for mutual benefit. The concepts and principles that underlie this sort of “Spatial Data Infrastructure” are well established, but as yet there is no comprehensive worldwide information-networking program in place to support more effective disaster reduction and recovery planning or response support.”

Schmale also warned that lifestyle changes among some vulnerable groups might be required.

"Are we going to wait for droughts to happen every two to three years and then help pastoralist communities cope and return to their own lifestyles, or are we going to engage in sensitive negotiations about the need to change lifestyles to better cope with inevitable emergencies?" he asked.

On information, Matthias said it was there in abundance: the real challenge was to properly analyse and process information and convert it into action. Like Valdes, he supported the use of indigenous knowledge built up over centuries — such as the experience of Bangladeshis in responding to regular flooding — as well as the use of science. It was, he emphasised, a partnership.

A positive aspect of the discussions on disaster was highlighted by Peter Gilruth, director of the UN Environment Programme’s division of early warning and assessment, who pointed out that information and communication technologies such as cell phones were now widespread in Africa and other developing countries. This would facilitate warning systems, which, together with information on coping, should be priority of governments and other stakeholders.