Getting regional crisis centres on the same page

Over the last 10 years, mega-disasters such as the 2003 heat wave in Europe and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami have focused the world’s attention on hazards that span whole regions. Such situations require better coordination from - and among - regional disaster authorities.

The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), a cooperation framework under the UN umbrella created in 2004, met in Brussels from 12 to 13 November to draw up benchmarks that regional crisis centres can use to improve coordination. The benchmarks include, for instance, ensuring the centres are able to communicate in a common language.

There are eight regional crisis centres in the world, including two in Europe and one each in Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the Gulf. One is a NATO centre, which covers Europe, Canada and the US. There are no regional crisis centres in Africa or Latin America.

There are also two global crisis centres run by the UN: the UN Operations and Crisis Centre (UNOCC) and the Emergency Relief Coordination Centre (ERCC) of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (The ERCC serves as the secretariat for GDACS.)
These centres compile, analyse and share information in the early days of a disaster, sending out alerts and providing maps of affected areas and needs to aid humanitarian responders. But better coordination among the centres is becoming increasingly essential.

Standards needed

Thomas Peter, manager of the ERCC and the GDACS secretariat says, “There are no formal international procedures or standards to ensure how crisis centres would interact in a crisis, including [standards for] a qualitative and predictable exchange of information among national and regional crisis centres, or to exchange experience and to build on best practices.”

He added: “Harmonized performance standards for national and regional crisis centres would significantly improve the quality and timeliness of information analysis in support of decision-making in emergency response.”

Both Luke Caley, a humanitarian affairs officer with the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and Janggam Adhityawarma, senior disaster monitoring and analysis officer with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), said the benchmarks drawn up in Brussels were the first steps towards preparing for a crisis that would require a global response.

The AHA Centre covers Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It is anticipated that more regional centres will be established in the future, said Peter, such as in Africa, southern Asia (to cover India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and Latin America, to facilitate preparedness and coordination of disaster response in those parts of the world.

Peter said he hoped to formalize standards for interested regional and national centres in 2014 and then promote the product worldwide. “At present, we are only focusing on global and regional centres, but similar standards should apply to national centres as well. The regional centres might play a key role in promoting these standards among their member states, and facilitate or coordinate related capacity-building efforts.”

"I would take a one-phone office run by even one or two motivated and committed people over a state-of-the-art office run by unmotivated and uncommitted people, whom I refer to as ‘humanware’"

More than equipment, an efficient crisis centre needs individuals committed to the task of compiling, analysing and dispensing information in a consistent and prompt manner, says Rogerio Mobilia, head of information management systems for OCHA in Latin America and the coordinator of Regional Humanitarian Information Network Project (Redhum).

“I would take a one-phone office run by even one or two motivated and committed people over a state-of-the-art office run by unmotivated and uncommitted people, whom I refer to as ‘humanware’,” he said.

New tools

The meeting also showcased new tools that countries could use to upload and analyse information as a crisis unfolds.

Einar Bjorgo, manager of the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), spoke about Asign, a crowd-source application that enables anyone at the site of a disaster to upload photographs with the help of an Android cell phone. “It helps to provide a sense of how high the water is, for instance, in the case of floods, so you get a real-time sense of the situation,” Bjorgo said.

The application is available on GDACS’s real-time coordination platform, which is used by disaster managers all over the world. Asign automatically re-sizes photos taken during emergencies according to available bandwidth and sends the images to a web server. The photo location is indicated on a map, and the photo can be further assessed and shared with individuals or groups.

Bjorgo said the application has been used in Haiti, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Countries and agencies upload maps on the GDACS system when a disaster unfolds. Bjorgo said they were considering including some text analysis of the information on the maps, as well.

GDACS also provides high-resolution maps produced by SARWeather, a service developed with initial funding from the Icelandic Technical Development Fund and the European Commission. Olafur Rognvaldsson and Logi Ragnarsson of SARweather explained that the service, which is run by a private company, can forecast how precipitation will behave based on the topography of a region, for example. Most maps used by disaster mangers do not distinguish among weather occurring on a plain, a coastal area or a mountainous region.

There was also a session on the use of crowd-sourced information gathered through social media. Despite the hype surrounding Twitter-sourced crowd-mapping tools, the response by officials who are often at the frontlines of crises was tepid.

“Very little of this information [gathered from social media] is actually actionable,” said DFID’s Caley. “The impact of such information is actually marginal.”

Attendees at the meeting expressed concern over their inability to verify whether data gathered from social media was first-hand information from responders.

Attendees committed to developing a strategy on how to use social media more effectively, including how to collect actionable information.