Monday, 9 May 2011

Global Platform 2011 - Developing a Global Hazard Database

The Guardian's 'Bright Idea' section has an interview with volcanologist, Bill McGuire from the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre in London, discussing the possibility of developing a global databank or central information source on natural hazards/disasters that could be used by world governments. A central information source or global databank would give details of all major natural threats. This wealth of data would be stored, updated and evaluated on a regular basis. It would be accessible by governments and other stakeholders, giving them information and details on events that could threaten particular cities.

There is a real need for excellent communication between all stakeholders in the area of disaster risk reduction. Natural disasters are complex events, combining some or all of interactions between ground conditions, geology, atmospheric dynamics, urban planning, education, public communication and many other factors. Developing appropriate disaster risk reduction schemes, increasing resilience and reducing vulnerability partly relies on excellent communication between experts in these and many other areas. A paper was published about a year prior to the earthquake in Haiti, suggesting that there was a significant threat of a major earthquake affecting the area - but this information failed to be communicated to or acted upon by the emergency planners, and an adequate risk reduction plan was not implemented.
Port au Prince, Haiti
This is, in theory, where the global databank would be useful. With respect to geological and geotechnical data... it would collate data, be regularly updated and evaluated - and made easily accessible to stakeholders. At the moment information is published in numerous journals, by government agencies and geological surveys, and disseminated by universities, conferences and online blogs. A central place that brings all this information together would theoretically help people assess the risk and act upon the science.

There are however a number of questions that need to be addressed...

(1) How is this Data Reviewed?
Data in this database would have to be monitored and reviewed, in the same way information in academic journals is reviewed. The huge amounts of data to be inputted, and huge numbers of authors and contributors means that the review process could be very difficult. Would the simplest solution be a databank where people are free to upload and edit (in a wikipedia fashion)?

(2) Accessibility of Data
The data needs to be contributed in a way in which it is easily understandable and usable by people from a variety of backgrounds. Details of ground conditions need to be communicated clearly to urban planners, and details of seismic probability communicated to emergency planners etc. The databank can not simply be an online archive of academic papers and journals (although this could form a part of it). Some work will have to be done on understanding the best way to communicate this knowledge so that it can be used to its full effect.

(3) Ensuring Communication of Data
It is stated that a paper was published a year before the disaster in Haiti, and was either not communicated to emergency planners or not acted upon by them. It is not altogether clear how this databank would prevent that happening again. The databank would depend on the paper being uploaded, accessed and understood by those with responsibility for emergency planning in Haiti and then acted upon. In my mind, the break-up in communication that occurred in the actual scenario is just as likely to occur in the scenario in which a global databank exists. If a researcher concludes that there is a real risk of an earthquake in a particular part of the world, they have a responsibility to disseminate that information to key stakeholders, and those receiving the information have a responsibility to act upon it. In both the situation with a global database and without a global database the same failures could potentially occur.

(4) Developed vs Developing Countries
Finally, it is unclear what impact this would have on reducing disasters in developing countries. There is the initial problem that it costs money to mitigate against a disaster. I would also imagine that the data available for many developing countries (disproportionately affected by natural disasters due to poverty increasing vulnerability) is significantly less than the data available for developed countries. It is intuitive that countries with a higher GDP can expect to invest more in research and development, have more and better established universities conducting research, and have collected data over a longer time frame. Geological and geotechnical maps, for example, exist to a high level of detail for many of the world's large cities in developing countries. In developing countries, this crucial data is often readily available for large scale areas, but not the small scale needed to understand differential ground motion in an earthquake, for example.

Thus, if urban planning and building resilience are to occur in the developing megacities - an investment in good and detailed ground investigation, slope stability assessments etc is crucial. This investment in gathering information as much as collating existing information will be beneficial to disaster risk reduction in developing countries.

In conclusion, the development of a global databank for natural hazards is an idea worth considering. It could help improve disaster risk reduction in some areas, although as McGuire himself recognises - there are many cases where it would not have made any difference (where there was no pre-existing knowledge of fault lines etc). It is also susceptible to the same breakdowns in communication as exist currently and likely to highlight the lack of information available for some of the most impoverished, and at risk communities. This lack of information is an issue that must be addressed in order to support disaster risk reduction in developing countries, as well as the improvement of communication between stakeholders .