Digitally enhanced networks for optimal crisis management
How can new technologies be used most effectively in crisis response? How can responders be better coordinated, damage mitigated and lives saved? An EU-funded project has sought to answer those questions and many more through far-reaching research into networked crisis management.
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By analysing man-made and natural disasters globally and the reaction of diverse local and international communities, the team behind the Marie Curie Networks for Initial Training initiative NITIMESR has provided in-depth insights into crisis-response strategies and identified best practices for future disaster-management operations.
Key results include the detailed ‘Handbook on Networks in Innovation and Crisis management: Theory and Practice in a Dynamic and Disruptive Environment’ as well as e-learning modules to facilitate knowledge transfer, and ongoing educational and research initiatives across Europe.
“Large-scale crises, whether man-made or natural, require a coordinated response from many organisations. As the number and scale of crises is increasing, so is the need to innovate and improve the effectiveness of crisis response,” says Claudia Bücker at NITIMESR coordinating partner CeTIM in the Netherlands.
According to the UN’s most recent Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, each year around 42 million human life years are lost in internationally reported disasters, while economic losses exceed EUR 250 billion globally. From earthquakes, tsunamis and catastrophic storms to terrorist attacks and major industrial accidents, each crisis is unique with diverse immediate and long-term impacts triggering differing responses depending on the circumstances, location and actors involved.
Through their work, the EU-funded NITIMESR researchers identified best practices, key organisational and networking structures, and response and decision-making strategies. In particular, they analysed how novel technologies from communications platforms and social media to data mining, machine learning and predictive modelling could be employed to optimise crisis response in the future.
Management and coordination challenges in crisis response
“Specifically, we have addressed governance and management challenges as a result of new technologies in the field of security and crisis management,” Bücker says.
The NITIMESR team focused on human-centred approaches and technologies to identify effective disaster-response models, looking especially at situations where public authorities, private entities and specialised NGOs are supported by ad-hoc volunteer and virtual organisations. Examples include the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, where university students used social media to organise a volunteer workforce of 10 000 people to assist with clearing debris; the analysis of satellite imagery by millions of digital volunteers worldwide in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013; and the collaborative search for missing Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 in 2014.
Such digitally enabled, globally distributed volunteer initiatives can be important assets in disaster response, particularly where the technical and human resources of authorities and NGOs are limited. Yet adequate coordination and organisation both on the ground and online is essential to ensure effective outcomes.
To address that challenge, the researchers developed and tested innovative approaches to coordination in real-world settings, considering governance, organisational and managerial issues to pave the way for integrated solutions. Their work, detailed in the project’s handbook, covered innovations like collaborative mapping and security threat analysis via machine learning, emerging trends such as human-centred systems design for disaster preparedness and response, inter-organisational collaboration in emergency services and humanitarian logistics, network-governed structures in crisis response operations, and social media use by public authorities.
Consequently, many of the PhD students involved in NITIMESR are now conducting ongoing fieldwork, including in projects such as DRIVER+ and iTRACK, funded under the EU’s H2020 programme, which is developing an open source system to support resource management for humanitarian organisations during conflict and disaster missions.
Academic partners have also extended courses, research and networking activities related to crisis management following their participation in NITIMESR. And events such as Blue Light Future Lab, where the focus is on addressing major challenges facing emergency services in cities globally, have further broadened the project’s impact.
As a result, collaboration among a network of academic institutions, security clusters and other organisations has been reinforced to enhance education, knowledge-sharing and the effective implementation of new technologies for crisis management in Europe and worldwide.