Data Informs Disaster Response in Nepal

May 27, 2015

Nepal has suffered from two major earthquakes, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25 and then a 7.3 magnitude earthquake (considered an aftershock of the first) on May 15. The damage has been extensive, in terms of casualties, physical destruction, and long-term development potential. The needs of Nepal, the surrounding area, and their people are significant, and companies around the globe are stepping in to support the region with both physical and data-based support.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Corporate Aid Tracker, companies have given $28.7 million in cash and in-kind donations to assist in the recovery of the earthquakes in Nepal. This type of support is essential to assisting individuals and rebuilding communities. Most of these donations are in the form of direct assistance given to the Red Cross, UNICEF, CARE, and other international NGOs who work on the ground, with significant support coming from companies such as FedEx, Walmart, and Ikea. This support comes directly from companies or as a corporate match to employee donations; though many companies do both, such as Cisco, DSM, Facebook, General Mills, Google, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, and Toyota.

Companies in the food, communications, health care, and consumer goods space often provide their products for the relief and recovery efforts. Some companies greatly reduced the cost of phone and internet communications to and from Nepal, including Microsoft, Tata, Time Warner Cable, Google, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Other companies are offering resources, equipment, and medical supplies for people who are displaced, such as Abbott, GSK, and Bristol Myers Squibb.

Beyond these desperately needed resources, there are other ways that companies can help through the use of their data networks. Using Big Data, it is possible to analyze current needs,

connect with loved ones in the impacted areas, and predict future needs. While Nepal will continue to need money, food, and infrastructure support to rebuild, it will also need the effective use of data to develop those resources properly and guide support.

While UPS committed $500,000 in funding for resources, they also activated their Logistics Emergency Team to offer their logistics and data expertise to help manage the shipping of supplies, delivery of meals, and the most effective way to store and distribute material. This helps manage the influx of goods and materials to Nepal for both immediate and long term needs.

Facebook activated its “Safety Check,” which allows individuals in the impacted area to indicate that they were safe, so their friends could know their status instantly. This not only gives peace of mind to loved ones around the globe, but allows for a more focused use of resources for search and rescue and telecommunications bandwidth.

Google also initiated its “Person Finder,” which allows people to search or post information about individuals affected by a disaster.  It puts together different databases about the status of potential and real victims, so it acts as a single place for people to look for individuals. It also allows for people to update the status of others, and search for individuals for whom there is no information. Person Finder also uses Google’s “alert” system so a user can create an alert about someone else so they can get information about them as soon as it is posted.

LinkedIn is using its network of individuals to help pinpoint local assistance, particularly those with technology experience. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operators are a specific example of the types of experts that LinkedIn is targeting to help in the recovery efforts.

Those volunteers are part of a growing trend in disaster recovery to use imaging to get a more complete sense of the situation. In addition to the work of UAV operators, agencies in the radar, optical, and satellite imaging space are working together to create open source maps out of their visual data sets. A NASA and USAID partnership, SERVIR, is one organization that puts these assets together, and has done so for Nepal.

Nepal also benefited from the work done before the earthquake by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and the Open Cities Project of Kathmandu Living Labs, a consortium of volunteers in Nepal and around the world who used satellite imagery to build maps of Nepal that included specific details on buildings and infrastructures. Once the earthquake occurred, the activity on that project intensified as government agencies and companies refocused their satellites and other imaging equipment to help accelerate the availability of imagery to completely map the region for emergency responders.

The partnership of physical and digital resources is essential to an effective disaster recovery, and Nepal will be no exception. As businesses evaluate their disaster response, more will move into the use of data to give their response more impact, whether that response is monetary, in-kind, or a service. At the same time, data can illuminate where needs are greatest and help connect loved ones. The role of data in humanitarian efforts will continue to grow, and companies are at the forefront of its development.