The Context: Cyclone Pam
Earlier in 2015 the islands of Vanuatu experienced devastation caused by Cyclone Pam that hit the islands. This tropical storm was the most intense of 2015 in the Southern hemisphere. It formed in early March to the east of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The storm tracked south and intensified to become a category 5 cyclone (the highest category). Wind speeds were reported at 250kmph (around 155mph) by the time that the cyclone was passing Vanuatu (see this reliefweb link). Individual gusts were reported at 350kmph. Other countries in the cyclone’s path included the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and New Caledonia. Several storm surges had been reported across the low lying islands which caused flooding.
Vanuatu is a series of 82 dispersed islands spread over around 1200 kilometres (800 miles) and communications were challenging when making an assessment of Cyclone Pam’s damage. At one point only one cellular tower was operational in the capital, Port Vila.
The Relief Efforts: Geographical Technology Assists
Two reports highlight efforts to assist after the Cyclone had passed leaving a trail of destruction and many thousand people homeless. The two reports show illustrate trends in disaster relief management: the first is using volunteers to assist in valuable mapping and the second using drones to undertake damage assessment surveys to assist in relief and rescue operations.
The US Peace Corps have been experimenting with disaster mapping using OpenStreetMap. It has been described as “new form of international development and civic engagement”. Mappers can contribute very rapidly through the use of OpenStreetMap technology. Volunteers, invitees, staff, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, friends of Peace Corps and students in OpenStreetMap are mapping countries affected by disaster. Additionally they map other areas that do not have very good maps and create a standardised new digital map. In March volunteers had been mapping in response to the impact of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and the South Pacific. Maps were created for Tuvalu and Kiribati and substantial contributions were made to a map of Vanuatu. Further details about the Peace Corp involvement and efforts can be reviewed on their web site.
The work started here will leave a lasting legacy of better mapping that is free and open source. Hopefully this can be used to help with development assistance and for other purposes in the future.
Vanuatu and the World Bank undertook a survey soon after the cyclone and used a quadcopter drone to capture aerial images which could be supplied to the authorities. The images showed the extent and nature of damage to buildings and other core infrastructure. This greatly assisted information provision to Vanuatu’s government: the country is one of the poorest in the world. This work was important to assist with disaster relief efforts and begin the recovery process for Vanuatu. This process will take much time but this use of technology, if used properly, could be a great assistance to other crisis situations in the future. Full details of some of the technicalities can be read on this Wired article.
These two examples demonstrate how technology can assist people in disaster situations. Coolection of information can lead to a better allocation of scarce resources for search and rescue in the short term and development in the longer term. The two approaches, mapping and aerial image capture, work together and images can be integrated into OpenStreetMap if needed. Communication and collaboration in these situations between locals, governments and non-governmental aid organisations is also very important to help after a major disaster such as Cyclone Pam.