Lost minutes mean lost lives

Forest with fire burning in background

September’s Typhoon Mangkhut was the most violent seen by the region in 30 years. It brought death and destruction to the Philippines, Hong Kong and southern China. But it was also only the latest in a pattern of major natural disasters for South East Asia. In 2013, more than 6,000 people were killed in the Philippines; 140,000 died in Myanmar and 800,000 were displaced in 2008 as a result of Cyclone Nargis; the 2004 tsunami swept across Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, with at least 225,000 lives being lost. 

Climate change is expected to make more extreme weather events more frequent and more intense. In a 2012 global survey by the United Nations among city authorities, 81% reported an increase in natural disasters, more intense storms, longer periods of drought and more flooding; 91% of Asian cities noted higher temperatures. 

Staff working at the AHA Centre - the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management for the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) - have an increasingly pressured and sometimes overwhelming role. AHA runs a centralised 24/7 disaster monitoring service for the region from its operations room as a means of accelerating the mobilisation of resources between all the ASEAN member states and its partners, such as the Red Cross and United Nations. It manages stockpiles of resources for providing relief to country populations as well as the ASEAN Emergency Response and Assessment Team. Recent history has shown this can sometimes mean responding to multiple major and evolving disasters. Floods in Vietnam and Laos in 2018 were accompanied by an earthquake in Indonesia.

The team works on the basis of status colours: green (when there are no signals of any issues); yellow (reported signals of a potential disaster but there is no request for assistance from the affected member state); orange (when the emergency response planning process is initiated); and red (at which point the Centre’s organisational structure changes to one of emergency response, where all available staff fall into necessary roles of preparing the disaster response and management).

Clear heads from clear information

The typical workflow of a disaster monitoring operation like that of the AHA Centre is complex and noisy with the influx of different forms of information and rumour, as well as the range of urgent requests for accurate updates and responses. The situation has only been made more difficult by the growing use of social media, the circulation of ‘fake news’ and gossip that are hard to check during an emergency situation. The severity and scale of disasters being handled means that the speed and quality of the response is crucial to the number of lives that can be saved - often the difference between hundreds and tens of thousands. 

Our work in the AHA Centre is looking at ways to deliver new levels of operational excellence by making use of a combination of the Information Systems and Operational Research expertise (a collaboration with Professor Konstantinos Zografos) to provide guided decision making based on past evidence and optimisation models. One aim is to make the disaster inspection monitoring and response faster, removing the need to have to make calls to local contacts - some of which many themselves be caught up in the throes of an emerging crisis - to confirm what’s happening. The proposed new system will look at evidence of past events at the geographical co-ordinates relating to the yellow alert and give a clear indication of the likelihood of an event happening in that location.

The other core aim is to ensure the greatest possible quality of the emergency plan. Under the existing system, a red alert means that all available staff take on the role of preparing the disaster management responses and coordination, relying on tacit knowledge of those staff. This may well involve very experienced members of the team, but depending on the timing of event, it may not. There is the potential for variability in response. The historical data collected can be analysed in terms of the nature of different responses in different locations and situations and the outcomes these led to. In this way the AHA Centre will have a decision-support system providing recommendations for the best possible response that’s rooted in evidence. The team can choose to follow or adapt the guidance as needed, but they know they are working from a reliable basis for action.

A first phase of work on the project has been completed - the mapping of the processes and the information systems being used. This has been important as a frequent issue with making use of mathematical models for disaster management has been that the information provided has been out of sync with the actual needs and expectations of decision-makers. A detailed mapping of processes, and particularly those moments when people are relying on their tacit knowledge, the informal knowledge that’s hard to capture in written or verbal form, helps us make sure the right forms of information are being provided. 

A second phase will involve developing the algorithms; to be followed by deployment of the decision-support system at the AHA Centre to assess the level of improvements resulting from using the new approach. Ultimately, an improved emergency response planning will enhance the institutional capacity of the organisations involved in emergency response management. 

Professor Juliana Sutanto is Co-Director of the Connected Communities Research Lab (CCRL). Her research focuses on how people interact with IT, and how better communications can lead to business and social benefits.


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