Barely two weeks after the new year began, on 12 January 2020, Taal Volcano — a small volcano sitting in the middle of a large caldera roughly 50 kilometres south of Manila — erupted. Spewing steam and ash several kilometres into the atmosphere, the eruption created widespread disruption as business and classes were suspended, flights halted or redirected, and large-scale evacuation and relocation efforts were initiated. While volcanic eruptions are a common enough occurrence around the world, the fact that this happened near Manila — a densely populated metropolitan area that is home to nearly 13 million people — underscored the need for continued vigilance and disaster preparedness.

In Asia-Pacific alone, from the period 2014 to 2017, over 870 million people from 160 countries either lost their lives, homes or livelihoods because of natural disasters, according to a study done by the United Nations. Among the most memorable in recent memory was the tsunami that struck Indonesia in the western Java and southern Sumatra islands on 22 December 2018, and the major earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April 2015. Both resulted tragically in many lives lost. In fact, a disproportionately high level of all deaths from natural disasters comes from poor countries.

Not surprisingly, in many emerging economies, disaster preparedness and response has become a top priority. Citizens in these countries are often the most vulnerable, particularly to natural disasters such as weather disturbances or earthquakes, because of high population densities in major cities, poor infrastructure and insufficient public services. While prevention is impossible, risk mitigation through early warning systems, immediate response and faster recovery is certainly possible with the aid of technology by leveraging internet-connected devices and analytics.

Using internet of things (IoT) and analytics for early detection and warning
Network-connected devices have long been used to monitor environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, moisture and vibration in utilities, manufacturing, supply chain and healthcare use cases. When used in conjunction with analytics, the devices provide a means for predicting or detecting sudden changes in the environment that would be a cause for alarm or at least for more thorough monitoring. Coupled with communications systems such as broadcast media, they could warn those directly in harm’s way to move quickly and avoid danger. Indeed, early detection and warning are one of the pillars of a strong risk mitigation strategy in case of disasters.

Such was the case in Chile, where an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck off Illapel in 2015, and a tsunami alert was issued almost immediately by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, based on earthquake data being monitored by the United States Geological Survey. Millions of people immediately fled their homes, and in that particular event, only a handful of people lost their lives.

Using IoT and analytics for effective disaster response
If public officials, the police, military, firefighters, health workers and other disaster response teams can detect and either proactively prepare for — or react quickly to — potentially hazardous conditions, loss of life and property can be drastically reduced. For example, intelligent systems can help route traffic and control crowds — ensuring order and safety during situations that involve many people either in one place or moving together. Such is the case during the Hajj, where nearly 2 million Muslim pilgrims visit Islam’s holiest sites for 5 days during the last month of the Islamic calendar. Saudi Arabia’s Makkah Region Development Authority (MRDA) implemented a “Crowd Control Command Centre” to specifically monitor crowds during the Hajj, using a combination of monitoring devices and analytics software to optimize the deployment of personnel and enhance its ability to respond quickly to emergencies.

While technology can’t stop disasters from happening, it can certainly help mitigate the risks. By providing the means for early detection, intelligent analysis and coordinated response, it has the potential to help save properties and lives.