International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



The use of Internet for disaster prevention Is the Internet a panacea?

Dave Paul Zervaas

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Internet has brought us many new information services and advances in several areas, including in disaster reduction management. Furthermore, internet- related developments in technology and products have spurred the economy in many parts of the globe. In a certain way, the Internet has even been mystified in the sense that some people seem to think or hope that the Internet equals development or that it holds the secret to a better quality of life. But does this mean that internet can deliver all what it seems to promise? Does it mean that the Internet holds the key to better disaster reduction programs? In these pages we will briefly touch upon these issues and answer some other questions at the same time.
What is the internet?

Let’s just make sure that we all know that we are talking about the same thing. We can see the Internet as some kind of a large interconnected system of computer networks, of which the World Wide Web is a part. To be more precise, it is a system of linked computer networks that is international in scope and that greatly facilitates data transfer and communication services such as file transfer (FTP), electronic mail, and the World Wide Web. Although the first (conceptual) origins of the internet can be traced back to the late sixties, the internet in its current form originated only recently, in the early nineties of the last century. It was just 10 years back, in 1993, that the first popular internet browser, named ‘Mosaic’, was released. Since then growth has been spectacular. While there were some 1 million hosts (a computer with an internet address) back in 1993, today’s figure comes close 200 million. Similarly, from less than 200 web servers in 1993, today’s figure is over 40 million!

Growth yes. But have all regions benefited equal?

Definitely not. The answer is clear. On the basis on an estimate (Nua Internet Surveys), at the end of 2002 there were some 605 million of persons that were online (of which an estimated 35% have their own internet account). Nevertheless, the distribution, both regarding number, frequency and type of access, is very uneven and resembling the disparities in other social and economic indicators. In Africa 6 million were online, in the Middle East 5 million, in Latin America 33 million and in Europe 190 million. Additionally, of those online, those in Europe or North America usually have much better quality and ease of access than in those in impoverished areas. As an example, looking only at the numbers, the immense disparities jump out. Almost 60 percent of the population of the US and Canada had online access last year. Only around 5 percent had in Latin America and in Africa it was less than 1 percent. If we take other factors into account, including ease of access, frequency, bandwidth and language, this distribution becomes even more skewed.

If the internet were a cake, an internet user in the US or Canada could eat a large cake of 10 pieces. The average user in Latin America would only eat 1 piece while the average user in Africa would only be able to eat the leftover bits or crumbs. And not to forget that not all pieces taste alike!

Within Latin America, with the large income disparities and low telephone penetration rates in many parts within most countries, Web penetration is likely to remain low for some time to come. Especially in remote areas, the internet will have much less presence than in the large cities. Despite the above, even in relatively impoverished areas, growth has been significant. According to information published on the internet by Pegasus Research International, in Latin America, an estimated 4 percent of the population has access to the internet in 2003 while only four years earlier, the proportion was 1.3 percent.

Typically, in developing countries the distribution of internet access is not as homogeneous as in the richer countries, where everybody who wishes can easily tap into internet resources. This implies that most of the inhabitants in an average large city in an Latin American country will most likely find little trouble to browse the web or exchange information via email. On the other hand, it may well be that large areas within that same countries remain virtually off line due to lack of telecommunications infrastructure or as a result of other social and economic factors, including poverty, cultural background, language, and access to education. In Latin America, there are still wide sectors of society that just have no real access to information resources on the internet, including many indigenous communities.

In Latin America, most of the government institutions, medium and large sized NGOs and private initiative organizations have good access to internet resources.

Why information is important is disaster prevention and reduction?

As in many other realms, information management is also vital in the areas of disaster prevention and mitigation. Just think about decision making, resources optimization for logistics, public awareness programs, and social engineering efforts - just to mention a few - and there seems to be little doubt that all depend heavily on the exchange of and access to clear, opportune and good quality information. In fact, facilitating the access, exchange and diffusion of information will help disaster management agencies to improve decision making processes aimed at reducing risks and disasters. The internet may also prove a valuable means to promote better inter-institutional cooperation in order to make better use of existing resources and to create new capacities, training programs and technological resources.

Of course, information is not only important for institutions. Individuals have an similar need for disaster reduction-related information. Public awareness programmes build on this fact and often seek to foster long-term changes in behaviour and to contribute to promoting a culture of disaster prevention.

Good quality and easy-to-access information is an important aid in preventing disasters

Knowledge engineering, training, and the use of current and emerging technological resources often are decisive factors in making information more meaningful for the many different kinds of users and sectors that are involved in disaster reduction. And those sectors are many indeed as they include scientists, community groups, school teachers and their students, NGOs, disaster management agencies, ministries of health and many more. Even if some of these groups have shared interests, it is also true that each of them may have their special needs and that it frequently it will be best to develop and supply different information services tailored to their specific interests and knowledge.

Bearing in mind the current social and economic indicators in most of the areas of the region, it becomes clear that most of the users in Latin America and the Caribbean that are in need of disaster related information will require easy and free access. Furthermore, many people have questions that they would like to address to experts or information centers. Providing feedback and answers to inquiries in a cost-effective way, such as through the internet or e-mail, will help many people to become tuned to learning new ways to prevent disasters or how respond to them better.

Sustainable development?

Information management is also an important ingredient in the sustainable development process. This is not only because by preventing and in better coping with disasters, the long-term sustainable development process is directly affected in a positive sense, but also because the knowledge gained by working with information in the disaster reduction arena will be of use in many other sectors, too. Examples of this are manifold but let’s just mention two.

1.- Within the framework of the project “Improving Access to Health and Disaster Information Central America”, CRID with funding from the US National Library of Medicine, PAHO/WHO and UNISDR, carries out capacity building activities in the area of disaster-related information management. Seven target centers in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, are acquiring the required capacities to collect, index, manage, store, disseminate, and share public health and medical information related to disasters. They also manage knowledge, training and technology resources in order to have sufficient capacities to act as reliable information providers to a host of other users in above countries. But they do so with little resources and within institutional realities that are typical of the region’s governmental and non-governmental organizations. The way the project is implemented has already provided many insights and lessons that are can be of much use in setting up information services in other areas with a minimum of resources.

2.- Another example is the way that valuable but simple information products are being developed by several institutions in Latin America, including CRID itself. Typically, the production of useful information products costs a lot of money and requires the interaction of sometimes highly specialized services. In order to respond to its own restrictions, CRID has developed a number of simple but effective information services, some of them based on open source software, that can easily and quickly be used in other settings with little technical and/or financial resources.

The quality of information

Information by itself does nothing. It needs to be received and in some way be interpreted by a user. In fact, information that is of bad quality can do more harm than good. Additionally, large and unordered quantities of information that overwhelms the receptor can slow decision processes as the receptor tries to spend too much time and resources to make sense of it all. In critical moments, unclear information can completely distort the correct perception of a situation.

Distortion of information can lead to a host of problems

Above illustration of a simulation shows how small inconsistencies in transmitting information that flows through several nodes or checkpoints can lead to enormous distortions. All of the four figures started out as identical shapes and colours (a medium-sized grey square) but after only a small number of trips of the messages between intermediate nodes on its way to a final receptor in which only small variations of the rules to describe the figures were permitted, four quite different figures are the result. Although above simulation refers to an abstract figure, it is very useful in understanding how important it is to consider the quality and consistency of information in order to make it useful to the end user.

Of course, the fact that nowadays information is abundant on the internet does not tell us much about the quality of it. Nor does it to the user that needs vital information or who wishes to prepare a educational information kit for use in an elementary school class. For instance, a search with the words ‘education disaster prevention’ in a well-known search engine turns up almost one million results or electronic documents. No need to say that this will probably not help the average user who is interested in disaster prevention through education. It is not only the enormous quantity of results she or he may not know what to do with, but the problem of knowing the intrinsic quality, truth or its usefulness of the electronic documents that are listed in the search results. On the other hand, we can not expect search engines to act as a clearinghouse for specific types of information. This is not a simple issue. To act as a full clearinghouse, an institution may need to invest vast quantities of resources to ensure the value and contents of all pieces of the information it makes available.

In short, the internet opens up a whole lot of new information worlds and communication channels to a significant portion of the world population but by itself usually does not solve many problems unless specific strategies and information services are carefully designed for target sectors. This is especially important for the disaster reduction community.

What information?

What types of information are of use for those that are interested in disaster reduction? The answer is easy here: all kinds! Disaster reduction is an interdisciplinary endeavour, besides the fact that the diversity of target groups for disaster reduction activities is enormous. Furthermore, there may be times and situations where real-time information on hazards -such as the monitoring of a storm system- becomes of paramount importance while in many other circumstances information that is not provided on a real-time basis is needed, such as in creating long-term institutional capacities, the making of prevention programs, and so on. In all cases, well designed internet-based systems can make a real difference regarding costs, ease of access, and timeliness. But as in almost everything else, nothing is perfect and there are potential problems to take into account. First of all, even if the internet was designed to be relatively immune to disruptions, in practice it remains quite vulnerable to all kinds of situations that are difficult to foresee or to avoid. Extreme natural events can disrupt power supply, telephone or wireless communications can be damaged by nature’s force or social conflicts, just to mention a few. But that is not all, computer viruses and similar cyber-attacks may render a network practically useless during a period of time. In other words, complete and total reliance on internet-based systems is outright unwise and may even become dangerous in crisis situations.

So is the Internet a panacea?

No, it certainly is not. But for many purposes it is an extremely important means to improve access to information and to improve the exchange of information. It may help to create new capacities in many areas of knowledge and bring geographically distant groups closer together. It may also help in bringing information to those people that otherwise would never had a chance to peek into far-way knowledge.

For disaster reduction activities, the internet will continue to grow in importance and it will be of vital importance to bring information to those that need it. In particular, education, prevention and public awareness programs will benefit much from low cost or free information.

Nevertheless, for time to come there will remain large sectors of society, especially in the developing countries where internet-based services will be of relatively little value and that will need to be complemented by making information available by other means, such as sending mail, radio or by voice (face-to-face personal contact). In other situations, computers may be available but no connectivity (no internet) thus making it still possible to make use of information technology –such as CD ROMS- in training in other activities.

Also, an effort must be undertaken to create more and better information services for specific target groups. An example of many other we can think of, are those in digenous groups that communicate in their own language, or that represent and share knowledge in ways that are different from mainstream customs on which most of the rules of the internet are based.