Tue, Mar 29, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Saving lives through technology

By Shyu Ting-yao 徐挺耀

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have opened up new ways of exchanging information. Look at the role they have played in promoting and spreading the “Jasmine Revolution” in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and the way they have fundamentally changed the way information about natural disasters is shared.

Research into the amount of information available online and the number of searches immediately following disasters like Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan and the Haiti earthquake, and my own observations on these phenomena since the recent massive earthquake in Japan, show that interest tends to peak within the first 72 hours and then gradually tails off. If you were to draw a graph of the amount of information and the instances of searches, it would be decidedly asymmetrical.

Clearly, during the initial spike in search requests governments should act quickly to reduce public anxiety, providing information on disaster prevention and rescue operations.

Is it important for the government to make information available online? Of course it is. The government controls resources such as emergency supplies and information about the nearest assembly points. Members of the public cannot reconnect water or electricity supplies, nor can they monitor the handling of a nuclear accident. If the government does not supply this kind of information, the public remains largely in the dark.

The lesson the government learned from Typhoon Morakot was that it lacked a viable network for distributing information online. Important information needed to be given out either when responding to 119 calls or through traditional media. When Morakot was ravaging the south, the government’s disaster response system relied on ad hoc teams organized by the Association of Digital Culture Taiwan to tell the public what to do. The members of these teams staffed local emergency response centers and established make-shift teams, with volunteers making the necessary information available to the response centers through various social networking tools.

The response to Morakot did produce some interesting findings, and is to be studied in depth by the APEC Telecommunications and Information Working Group. In this sense, it can be seen as Taiwan’s own unique contribution to the improvement of disaster relief work.

However, the information network established during Morakot was only a temporary measure. Failing to grasp its importance, the government has yet to establish a more permanent system to make information available in the event of a natural disaster. It is apparently banking on another non-governmental organization (NGO) coming to its aid when the next disaster strikes.

This is simply not good enough, but no-one in any of the NGOs is willing to stand up to the government and point out what its responsibilities are. There is consequently no mechanism in place to facilitate the effective dissemination of information come the next disaster in Taiwan.

Previous premiers have been keen to procure systems and equipment, without really understanding which frameworks need to be set up first, or what software is required. Neither do they ask about why particular equipment is required, or what good it will do in a disaster. It is one thing to buy the latest in information systems, but we also need the staff to input the information. What is most lacking at present is trained personnel able to deal with such information. Some government departments seem to believe this can all be done by volunteers. Where exactly these volunteers are supposed to come from and how they are to coordinate their work is a mystery.

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