Natural disasters, public safety and the power of analytics

By Colin Laurie and Kirtana Raja

The human, social and economic cost of large-scale natural disasters is enormous.  The United Nations estimates the annual financial cost of natural disasters is more than $300 billion – and in 2013, these major events affected nearly 100 million people. These catastrophic events and their devastating aftermaths will likely increase in years to come due to climate change, demographic and urban growth.

Click to enlarge infographic (learn more at:

Climate change, for example, causes increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and rising sea levels, which are major contributing factors to natural disasters. In fact, nearly 87 percent of all natural disasters in 2014 were climate driven.

Over the past 20 years, about 4 in 10 of all major disasters involved flooding. But what makes this even more problematic is that poorer countries are often the hardest hit. Ten of the developing world’s 15 largest cities are in low-lying coastal areas prone to flooding. These nations, which often struggle to provide infrastructure and services to their populations in the best of times, are ill-prepared when faced with events causing catastrophic infrastructure damage and devastating loss of life. As natural disasters and their costs to society continue to increase in both severity and frequency, what can be done to help create and improve public safety solutions?

Leverage analytics

By their very nature, natural disasters are unpredictable and inevitable. However, effective use of data and analytics can provide better warning and more time to prepare for potential disasters.  For example, when climate data provided by the Weather Company (parent organization of the Weather Channel) is integrated into a crisis management solution like the IBM Intelligent Operations Center for Emergency Management (IOCEM), it provides insights on when, where and with what severity extreme weather will hit. Analyzing digital prediction models of weather patterns and leveraging social networks to track adverse effects (like power outages) enables governments, utility companies and emergency services to better prepare and respond to such events. This kind of integration combines insight from multiple data sources and platforms to provide a holistic response to disaster situations.  This helps public and emergency services ensure that the right resources can be prepared and deployed to the hardest hit areas.

Harness social media

Social media also can substantially improve the effectiveness of public safety solutions. One such use is to quickly send out warnings, instructions and updates to specific communities and areas with far more granularity than conventional broadcast media. Equally important is the use of social data crowdsourced from users to provide a stream of live feedback on evolving situations. By using geospatial data combined with trend analysis, organizations can pinpoint specific areas in need.

For example, tracking social media mentions on the location of downed power lines and water main breaks can be hugely helpful in speeding recovery efforts. Without social feedback, utility companies would have to waste significant time and resources to find breaks in the grid, rather than dedicating resources to fixing the problem and restoring supply.

Recognizing the value of social media, the Humanity Road organization and Statistics Without Borders have produced a detailed guide on social media best practices in disaster recovery situations.

Implement data governance

One key challenge for governments in implementing analytics is dealing with dark data – having too much, too large and too disparate data sources so that it becomes almost impossible to run effective analytics. When different institutions have widely different operating systems, overlapping or even conflicting data sources aren’t readily compatible, which can be a major challenge. Any solution that enables governments to improve public safety must be able to integrate the “right” data from a variety of sources and formats. This element is vital in displaying a comprehensive 360-degree view of a nation’s environment, people and processes to aid disaster recovery.

Partner for solutions

Being able to combine insight from analytics and social media allows action to be taken in an effective and coordinated manner. The real power of public safety analytics in predicting and prompting disaster response can only be unleashed when agencies – from transportation to healthcare and even utilities and telecommunications – set aside differences and are willing to work together to improve emergency response systems, within and across national borders. In the end, when we partner for solutions, we can achieve the greatest impact and make crucial life-saving decisions.


Re-published on Forbes on October 27

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