Sunday, September 21, 2014

Digital strategies for disaster management: Lessons from Kashmir

In a passionate letter explaining his government’s failure to coordinate relief efforts in Jammu and Kashmir, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah stated that a breakdown in connectivity due to unprecedented flooding caused a ‘missing government’ in a time of crisis. Recounting the chain of events in a newspaper, he wrote: ‘Initially I was relieved to find that broadband Internet services and BSNL cellphone services were functioning, but that relief was a short-lived one because a few hours later, we were effectively cut off from the rest of the world — no phones, no Internet, no roads and, once electricity went off, no access to TV stations either.”

The floods of Jammu and Kashmir, in time, crippled all modern modes of communication. Phone lines and internet connections were down as telecom infrastructure was severely damaged. At a point, only network operator Aircel managed to provide service as its mobile centers were on high rises. All telephone exchanges were submerged save one. Authorities estimated it would take a few days, at the minimum, to repair connectivity. A week later, the army and local administration are working on restoring 2G services. Add to that, electricity lines were severely damaged, hampering restoration of normal services.

Those who managed to find signal briefly called friends and family to be rescued. Others, who were fortunate enough to be rescued, informed people, many of whom were stationed outside Jammu and Kashmir with full connectivity, of the whereabouts of stranded neighbors. Quickly, as people have started doing in times of crisis, reports of those who needed rescuing and those who had been rescued started making their way onto social media platforms. Google released a ‘Person Finder’ page which allowed people to feed in names of those they were looking for, or add information about those they knew had been found. Facebook communities like ‘Kashmir Flood Information Channel’ had over 22,000 people on it, adding pictures, tidbits, hopes and prayers along with real-time information about loved ones. Soon enough the process became formalized, making the connection between information and where it needed to go. A top executive at Twitter India offered to organize information on flood victims and feed it directly to the Army. At the same time senior army personal used Whatsapp to feed information to senior commanders, so as to direct them on where to go next for rescues. Some reports say that over 12,000 people were helped thanks to social media.

The army, on its part, was able to connect to social media content because it was using satellite phones. These phones do not use terrestrial cellular sites like the ‘normal’ phone that most of us use, but instead are linked to satellites in geostationary orbit, which is essentially a fixed position in the sky.  These phones are generally not made available to the general public because of security concerns, as they use encryption and are hard for the authorities to intercept. Therefore, satellite phones in India, can only be used after obtaining a license. According to reports, the army has begun sharing satellite phones with civil administration, along with 100 Mobile Cell Communication Sets, to enable the relief efforts. Plans also include setting up STD booths as connectivity is restored, as well as moving generator sets into the state. In fact, satellite phones have been used in disasters when regular mobile networks have failed, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the Haiti Earthquake, and interestingly, are even used by reporters in war zones for safe and assured communication. On another note, there are cases of people with solar chargers for their phones who were able to maintain battery levels despite the lack of electricity, and connect with the outside world as soon as they found signal. And now, sending shipments of solar lamps are being sent to the state to help with the relief effort.

So, the situation as it were is this: in the worst natural disaster Jammu and Kashmir has seen in recent memory, all phone and internet connections were down, causing a communication blackout. Friends and well wishers, mainly using the internet (therefore, based outside the state for the most part), had organized themselves in a manner that they were able to tunnel information to the Indian army which could connect to these people through their satellite phones. A week later, connectivity is slowing getting restored, either due to receding water, new communication equipment brought in from the outside and the work of engineers.

At this juncture, a few questions must be asked. Firstly, why is there no disaster management plan in the case of a communication blackout? This is perhaps even more pertinent given that the remote corners of India, be they coastal, mountainous or otherwise, are not well connected to modern telecom networks. The most recent figures (July 2014) from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for Jammu and Kashmir reveal that teledensity in the state is at 69.31% with wireless subscriptions growing at a rate of 0.33%.  In this case, it is fortunate that Jammu and Kashmir has a significant deployment of army personnel who had access to satellite phones so that some communication channels were open even as telecom infrastructure is down. However, disaster management cannot be left to luck. And given rising dependence on technology, which has in fact rendered a government completely paralyzed without it, special focus needs to be given to creating a parallel communication technology network that can be used without telecom infrastructure and electricity.

The second question is, what are the current limitations of social media in rescue efforts and how can that be changed? It would seem that those who were able to send messages to friends using social media benefitted from this effort. But, does this leave people out? What about those in smaller villages who might not have friends using Facebook or Twitter? Data based analysis is hard to come by, but perhaps one can ask, anecdotally, why the 2008 Bihar floods saw no such significant social media campaign to coordinate rescue efforts (especially from urban pockets like New Delhi/Mumbai) while in contrast in the same year, Mumbai used social media extensively to disseminate information about missing persons and rescue efforts during the Terror Attacks. Socio-economic factors, access to the internet, and personal networks could well be tied to social media usage in times of emergency. If anything, the benefits of last mile connectivity and digital literacy have been made all too clearly with the Kashmir floods.

The final question that should be answered is, to what extent is India leveraging ICTs in disaster management efforts? Has a disaster communication system that integrates phone, internet, television and radio outputs been designed to warn people? It might surprise some to find out that the Ministry of Home Affairs, has a National Policy on Disaster Management (2009), which alludes to the important role ICTs can play in such a scenario. A document called ‘ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction’ has also been released. An online inventory of resources by district is being built. The plan also seeks to deploy a VSAT network to connect states to the center, and also to connect them to medical centers. As witnessed in Kashmir, this is indeed needed as satellite phones were moved in to help the civilian administration function again. GIS – Geographic Information System – technology, that integrates data from topographical maps, aerial views and satellite imagery, used to predict natural disasters has also been flagged as an important technology to be leveraged. Where this has reached can be traced by looking at disaster management from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to the 2008 floods in Bihar, to the 2014 Kashmir floods.

Ultimately technology is as effective as the people who use it. Individual and institutional efforts alike have shown us glimpses of its potential in disaster management. It is time India goes beyond the planning stages to the implementation stages. Lives depend on this.

Mahima Kaul is Head of the Cyber and Media Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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