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10/17/2013

Access to technology in a disaster difference between life and death

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Access to technology can be the difference between life and death in a disaster situation, according to the Red Cross World Disasters Report 2013. (Image credit: Takashi Nakano)

 

In the last three years, cellphone-toting Haitians in the path of disaster -- storms, diseases, and the like -- have received targeted SMS messages warning them of the impending trouble or providing information about how to cope. 

The SMS-based system, called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) and developed by the Red Cross, doesn't require a specific app to receive the messages. It just floods cellphone users in a given location who might otherwise be blind to the trouble headed their way, and relies on them to pass the message on. Nearly three-quarters of users reported that they did, and 86 per cent said the information was useful.

According to the Red Cross' World Disasters Report 2013, access to technology can make or break the fate of a community in a disaster.

If something like TERA, developed in response to the deadly 2010 earthquake, had been available when the quake hit, perhaps it would not have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives -- since more lives are saved in the aftermath of a disaster by locals than by those who rush in later.

The so-called "digital divide" is most prominent in some of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the Red Cross reports. And those least likely to have access to technology -- women, the less-educated and the poor -- are the most vulnerable to the impact of disasters.

Mobile phone subscriptions in low- and middle-income countries more than tripled between 2005 and this year, and the number of people connected to the Internet followed a similar trajectory. Technology can be used to plan and train for disasters, to mitigate the effects of one, and to coordinate responses and locate affected people in the aftermath of a strike, and the report details the many ways different systems are being used for those very purposes.

But 60 per cent of the world still has no access to the web, limiting their ability to benefit from the technological revolution when disaster strikes.

On a positive note, the Red Cross report notes that there were fewer deaths from disasters in 2012 than any other year in the past decade. But that's largely as a result of luck, because there was nothing on the scale of the 2010 Haitian earthquake or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

 

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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