Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

Last week, as a guest of the JRC, I attended a technical meeting on GDACS, a cooperative effort of several UN agencies and the European Commission to develop a common alert and coordination mechanism for natural disasters. Each agency monitors different types of natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods, volcanoes), and there’s a real push to avoid duplication of effort in disaster response.

The key to integrating data and systems of these orgs is, fantastically, RSS. To me, this use is potentially one of the greatest successes of RSS, and shows how the architecture of the web can be a huge boon to humanitarian and ecological efforts. Surprisingly, the participants had a much more sober view on RSS, seeing the format as just one less thing to worry about, freeing up the system to “fluidly develop capacities”. They are well aware of the latest developments on the web, and consider the methods and technology as needed (Digital Identity and RESTful web services were discussed). The GDACS system makes copious use of namespaces to encode various domain specific information, like the type, severity, and location of the disaster [feed of recent events]. Because it’s RSS, it can be used in other tools, like human new readers, and worldKit (the JRC’s adoption of RSS and geoRSS lead to their use of worldKit, my involvement in the online tsunami model, and tagently the current effort to officially extend the geometries and compatibility of geoRSS).

Perhaps it’s the unintended consequences of RSS that are most interesting. GDACS, GLIDE numbers (a globally unique identifier for disaster events), Virtual OSSOC (a private message board for relief workers), etc. are intended for use of humanitarian relief professionals. But yet, those RSS feeds are out and available for the taking. Any enterprising hacker has access to the same data feed the world’s biggest humanitarian agencies use. The relief orgs are aware of the amazing bottomup disaster responses to the tsunami, katrina, pakistan .. but don’t quite see how it really makes a difference to their own practices .. yet (well some more than others).

There are definite systematic limitations in disaster response. The agencies are beholden to donor nations. They are in competition with each other for the same funding — there is a tension of cooperation and competition even in humanitarian aid. If donor nations do not respond, emergencies can be passed over. To some extent, media exposure and its feedback cycles drive the magnitude of the response. Agencies must be cognizant of the media in order to attract continued funding. These agencies do have resources to draw on, but are plagued by the same inefficiencies and inflexibility of any large beauracracy.

The Web has distributed the power of communication. People can speak directly to each other, and to wide audiencies, without going through media monopolies. This power is needed among the most desperate — to directly communicate their needs, during an emergency and long into the recovery after the media glare fades, and to coordinate directly with those that can help, professional and amateur humans. I don’t think grassroots can do it alone, not even close, but the big orgs need to be engaged, a process of give and take, until the edges of those organizations become as fuzzy as a web api.