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OPINION: How advancements in technology have made disaster recovery faster

Friday, 7 January 2022 11:30 GMT

An undated image of damage caused by a Haitian earthquake. Photo courtesy of Miyamoto International.

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What can two Haitian earthquakes a decade apart tell us about tech and disaster recovery?

By Guilaine Victor, Dr. Kit Miyamoto, and Olivia Nielsen of Miyamoto International

Much has changed over the last decade, including the overwhelming adoption of mobile phones and digital apps that encompass an all-inclusive array of services, including disaster response. The latest magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Haiti now shows exactly how these new digital developments, combined with technical assistance, can lead to efficient damage and repair assessments, and speed up recovery efforts.

Two major earthquakes struck Haiti in recent years: one in January 2010 and another in August 2021. The first magnitude 7.0 hit the country’s capital, Port au Prince, killing over 200,000 people and damaging over 500,000 buildings. The more recent one occurred in the less densely populated southern region, killing a few thousand people, and damaging over 100,000 buildings.

After the 2010 earthquake, it took a couple of years to complete a house-by-house assessment of damages and provide repairability information to homeowners, who did not know if their homes were safe to return to or how much they would cost to repair and strengthen. Yet today, thanks to trained Haitian engineers and mobile technologies, the assessments in the South are almost complete.

This rapid process was thanks to the development of a mobile building assessment app, which engineers can use to map a building, give it a unique QR code, assess damages, provide a habitability demarcation (red, yellow, or green), and specify engineer repair methods and construction material quantities. The open-source app, Kobo toolbox, can be used offline in remote locations and data is automatically uploaded to a central system at the end of the day, giving real-time assessments of large regions affected by the earthquake.

But the app would not be useful without the deployment of hundreds of trained Haitian engineers, who go house-by-house with their phones to provide the critical data needed for the app. Thanks to World Bank funding and implementation by United Nations, Offices of Project Services (UNOPS), Haitian Ministry of Public Works (MTPTC) and Miyamoto International, in less than three months these engineers have evaluated over 80,000 buildings. The assessments will enable households to receive the critical information they need to keep their families safe, as well as the data needed by international donors to invest in rebuilding better and safer.

Though this technology is easy to download and use, it takes years of preparation to configure, adopt and have ready for quick deployment. In fact, the app was developed under a multi-year US Agency for International Development program to strengthen disaster response readiness in Haiti. This investment turned out to be well worth it, as the Haitian government and international community now had the tools to begin assessments immediately.

But technology is not only useful after a disaster strikes, it can and should also be leveraged before a disaster occurs. Until recently, the sheer scale of most urban areas makes house-by-house assessments a daunting task. However, tech is now helping us evaluate entire cities in a mere fraction of the time (and cost) it would have taken a team of engineers just a few years ago. Machine learning and drones, for example, are being deployed by the World Bank to identify at-risk buildings and enable households and policymakers to retrofit them before lives are lost.

We cannot prevent disasters from happening, but we can limit their impact on our lives and our economies. We need tech to help us identify vulnerable buildings before a disaster occurs and tools to quickly map out damages and help households return safely to their homes. Haiti has shown us how much faster we can act when we have the right technology at hand.

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