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The potential and limits of ICT - predicting and warning of natural disasters

There is a tendency, in today's increasingly digitalised world, to turn to technology to solve scientific and societal problems alike. Technology has responded well, increasing the quality of life, both directly and indirectly, of citizens around the world. Phenomena remain, h...

There is a tendency, in today's increasingly digitalised world, to turn to technology to solve scientific and societal problems alike. Technology has responded well, increasing the quality of life, both directly and indirectly, of citizens around the world. Phenomena remain, however, whose power and potential to cause misery and destruction cannot be matched by human knowledge or science - natural disasters. At a session on information and communications technologies (ICT) for natural disasters at the Euro-South East Asia forum on ICT, participants discussed what can and cannot be done to reduce the impact of such incidents. They also looked at what is currently being done, and where the priorities for the future should lie. Two separate but interconnected aspects are essential to reducing the devastation caused by natural disasters - the ability to predict them, and the ability to disseminate warnings to all of those likely to be affected. For several disasters, an early warning system is now in place. Anything caused by weather - storms, floods, heat waves, deep snow can be predicted. Given the time delay between the trigger and the effects, a tsunami can also be foreseen. Earthquakes are less predictable, and can today only be predicted one minute before they arrive. The first presentation at the conference session focused on research that is being undertaken to improve prediction, while the second presented research on dealing with the aftermath of a disaster, and in particular rescues. Agnès Marty from French company Thales explained that while Europe is increasing knowledge, managing risk and dealing with disasters, there are still huge gaps. The company is involved in several EU-funded projects, but finds that organisational, geographical and financial challenges remain. On the latter issue, there is the question of who should pay for demonstrations of new technology performed outside of Europe? Should the Europe or the region in question be responsible for meeting these costs? One of the biggest technological challenges is developing the right decision support tools for disaster prevention, said Dr Marty. In order to define appropriate models, Thales needs partners, she said. Winston Seah from the A*STAR Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) introduced a project, known as Tarantulas, that is working on the all-terrain advanced movement of ubiquitous mobile asynchronous system. More simply, the project team foresees a day when sensors and robots will be able to detect where victims are in a dangerous building that could be, for example on fire, so that rescuers can go directly to where they are needed, minimising the risk to their own lives. The robots will use swarm technology to ensure that they spread out, and will be able to inform others that a room has already been searched. They will also be able to relay information back, for example when investigating a mining disaster, where a signal from the robot deepest inside would not reach the surface. Dr Seah's team is also looking for partners, and in particular those who can 'help to make our network intelligent,' said the scientist. While the potential of this technology to save lives is huge, Dr Seah admitted that: 'If a country doesn't want to address a problem, it doesn't matter how good the technology is. We tend to look at advanced technologies so that we can publish papers. [...[ We don't always consider that advanced technologies are not necessarily what is needed. Sometimes we need to bring scientists and those on the ground closer together.' Dr Seah was in part responding to a question from Stephan Pascall, an advisor to the Directors within the European Commission's Information Society and Media DG. Having listened to descriptions of various systems that could have been used to warn of the Asian tsunami in December 2004, as well as factors that make each system less than perfect, Mr Pascall asked what would be wrong with simply having sirens along the coast that would sound if a tsunami had been detected. This would be going back to Second World War technology, when sirens warned of an impending air raid. The best technology in the world is also of no use if a government is unwilling to address a problem, or if a system is not in place to inform inhabitants that a disaster is heading their way. The system for passing on an early warning to citizens 'does not have to be high technology - in fact it's much better for countries without the infrastructure if it's not,' Mr Pascall told CORDIS News. 'It has to be robust and it has to be based on cheap technology.' Referring to the problems faced by remote communities, as highlighted during the session, Mr Pascall alluded to the need for 'a self-contained system in remote mountain areas, for examples where there are landslides and other disasters that take human lives regularly.' Participants agreed on the necessity of a 'network of networks'. Such an arrangement could build upon the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a ten year implementation plan for which was signed in February 2005. The plan sets out a timescale for achieving certain objectives in the fields of improved Earth monitoring, understanding of Earth processes and prediction capabilities for the behaviour of Earth systems. While Europe is more fortunate than Asia in that it rarely experiences large-scale natural disasters, a great deal of work is nonetheless being done to increase knowledge of the factors leading up to them, and to minimise their impact. In addition to the joint EU-European Space Agency (ESA) initiative Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES), the Commission is funding research projects on earthquake and landslide disaster management methods, the mapping of natural hazards, risk mitigation, and infrastructure damage prevention, assessment and reconstruction.

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