The Sri Lankan government is working to improve its disaster response capacity by sharing geographic data, say experts.
“Ensuring organizations [national authorities and partners] all use the same geographic data is essential,” Shyamalie Perera, deputy surveyor-general of Sri Lanka’s Survey Department, told IRIN.
“Sharing digital data will help national authorities and humanitarian organizations exchange data, thereby improving the effectiveness of humanitarian response for disaster management purposes.”
When disasters occur, recording damage to housing, infrastructure, and services; tracking displaced people; distributing food and water; and coordinating the work of humanitarian organizations are key to the government and its partners’ ability to better respond, say experts.
In September, the Survey Department of Sri Lanka and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) signed an agreement on digital data dissemination, effectively allowing organizations to use government geographic data for disaster management.
The data is now readily available on a UN Humanitarian Community Webportal free of charge to users of ArcGIS software, a geographic information system using maps and geographic information.
Previously such data, which includes administrative boundaries, population levels, as well as detailed information on transport and water systems in the 65,000sqkm island, would have had to have been purchased from the Survey Department, resulting in unnecessary delays.
The data is invaluable in establishing baseline information for preliminary reporting, aid workers say.
According to the Open Data for Resilience Initiative, which aims to reduce the impact of disasters by empowering decision-makers with better information, data is often collected and shared haphazardly across government ministries, aid agencies, organizations and the private sector, while it is unavailable to decision-makers and at-risk populations.
Critical government geographic data is often not included or comes in late.
A boost for urban resilience
Sri Lanka’s recent open data agreement provides data to key decision-makers and operational agencies who are partners in any emergency response, said Tissa Abeywickrama, director-general of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
Data dissemination can also assist in identifying hazard-prone areas, something that could be beneficial for long-term planning, Perera said.
“It [population and infrastructure information] can help to build sustainable partnerships in advance of disasters and reduce the impact of disasters on people’s lives, as well as the Sri Lankan economy and environment.”
A 2012 World Bank report highlights the importance of data-sharing in boosting urban resilience to disasters.
"Openness is critical for inclusive development and a thriving civil society," said Suzanne Kindervatter, head of the Strategic Impact team of InterAction, the largest alliance of US-based international NGOs focusing on disaster relief and sustainable development programmes.
According to OCHA, over the last 34 years natural disasters have killed more than 37,000 Sri Lankans. As recently as November 2010, a monsoon triggered devastating floods across parts of the country, affecting close to 1.2 million people, while just this week thousands of coastal residents in the northeast were evacuated when tropical Cyclone Nilam came close to striking on 29 October.