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Getting Smart About Disasters
Jamais Cascio, 13 Jun 05

Nearly six months ago, on December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake off of Indonesia resulted in a tsunami which killed upwards of 160,000 people in South and South-East Asia. In the days and weeks following, questions of how best to identify, communicate and report on the possibility of disaster consumed many weblogs and media outlets. What tools could be used to make sure that a tragedy of this magnitude could not happen again?

While attention to the aftermath of the tsunami has faded in many (but not all) areas, the continued likelihood of other disasters -- natural, such as earthquakes or asteroid strikes, or human-related, such as terrorist attacks or disease pandemics -- has kept numerous researchers focused on improving our collective responses in emergencies.

The most important tool we have, of course, is information. Knowing what to do before disaster strikes makes smart responses far simpler, as can having access to good information once a crisis is underway. For many people who pay attention to the ways we could all be in trouble, the most likely near-term emergency is the possibility of an Avian flu pandemic. Thanks to Dr. Lucas Gonzalez, we may now be in a much better position to be able to respond effectively to a possible pandemic.

Dr. Gonzalez, noting the incredible utility of Wikipedia as an information resource in the hours and days after the December 26 tsunami, decided on June 1 to start making Wikipedia even more valuable in the case of an Avian flu breakout. He has added sections to the Wikipedia entry on Avian flu covering preparedness plans, strategies for slowing or stopping a pandemic, and (most interestingly) "Stages of a Pandemic," a World Health Organization rating system for where the world stands, disease-wise. On the 1-6 scale (1 being no worries, 6 being full-fledged pandemic), we're now at a 3.

Stephen O'Grady at Tecosystems, in commenting about this development, notes:

...one of the critical problems during the 1918 pandemic was one of communication. Fearing panic, the government cracked down on the media, using official and unofficial channels to suppress and control content they believed to be objectionable or incendiary. The unfortunate result of all of this was that the public completely lost faith in any sort of official media, and like the boy who cried wolf when the time came to get actually truthful information out, no one believed it. When you see reports daily that nobody's really dying, and daily claims that the cure is almost here, then walk down the street and see crepe paper (used to mark houses where a victim had passed away) on every house, you know something's not right. Hopefully we never test the hypothesis, but with Wikipedia - or more decentralized means like blogs - it's difficult to imagine that sort of censorship in today's world (unless the internet itself was shut down).

In short, survival is best ensured by communicating with those around you, no matter what the authorities are telling you. This common-sense notion is underscored by research done by the civil engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, looking at the ways in which people escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. Their report, Occupant Behavior, Egress, and Emergency Communications, runs nearly 300 pages; it can be downloaded from NIST (PDF). The report focuses primarily upon the mechanics of evacuation, and the challenges faced by those fleeing the buildings, but also addresses the ways in which people received information about what was going on. Far and away, the information received from peers in communication with people outside the towers (via phones or instant messaging devices) was more accurate and useful than information given by authorities such as 911 operators or building management.

Getting good information from others presumes that other people have access to good information. Some types of disasters may preclude that, whether by removing power from transmitters or knocking out radio and television stations. According to Gizmodo, however, XM Radio, one of the two big satellite radio providers, is developing a plan to set aside bandwidth to provide information services in case of major disasters (see graphic). Most satellite radio systems are in cars, which would not be affected by power blackouts. Although satellite radio systems are not yet ubiquitous, they are commonplace enough that they could work well as emergency information services.

From technology in orbit to technology on the ground (or near to it) -- "ultraswarms" of Bluetooth-connected microbot flyers could serve as a distributed search technology in disasters. Swarm systems excel in situations where stand-alone units can only get good sensor or imaging results with multiple passes. Each unit would be small and relatively inexpensive; the dozens of units linked together would be able to share both communication networks (in a traditional ad hoc network fashion) and computational abilities. Such mobile swarm sensors would be ideal for search-and-rescue operations, as they'd be able to carry a variety of sensor types and check otherwise-impassible terrain from multiple perspectives in a single go. (As a side note, the use of wireless flying microbots as sensor swarms was precisely what I suggested as a possibility last August.) A research paper about ultraswarm microflyers can be downloaded here (PDF).

More global-scale disasters are inevitable; we may be able to do little to stop them, but we can mitigate the worst of their effects. Information, communication, and identification are the key puzzle pieces. We may not have all the tools we need yet, but we're definitely getting there.

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Comments

When I started adding to the (already present) wikipedia Avian Flu entry, I couldn't dream it would be linked from BoingBoing and from WorldChanging. Thanks!

I specially love to see the specific awareness of "we are in level 3". No more, no less. At this moment.

I believe we're now in a moment in which we can do what WorldChangers do best: look for (or design from scratch) practical solutions to practical problems.

  • Could we have a design for an easy to build mask, like this filter for water, but for airborne viruses? Parents could then take care of their child without risking their own health so much - so they may later take care of the other children.
  • Could we find ways to minimise contact between animal species (poultry and pigs and humans - ahem, yes, we're also animals, I think) in Asia? Current "badly integrated" farming practices mean chicken waste is fed to pigs, with no processing. If the pandemic doesn't start too soon, we might really minimise the risk that we create with the way we do things.
  • What other areas need our "design work" and preparation? Could this work be useful for things other than a pandemic? And the other way round?

If/when a pandemic strikes, having these and other things ready might make a huge difference.

I don't know if Wikipedia (with it's focus on "consolidated", factual, objective knowledge) is the best place for such "cooperative design work". Any advice is most welcome!

The way I see it, there's need for high-tech, medium-tech and low-tech aproaches to minimising transmission while keeping society functioning. This includes both education (reality based and effective in adapting our daily behaviour) and "gadgets". Quite a challenge!


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 14 Jun 05

Very nice work!

If no government or producer wants to make vaccines in advance, how about getting people to pay for it before the pandemic? I've no idea how much those cost and how long they can be kept, but paying for my part of a production run (and family) would seem like a wise choice.

Maybe we need a pledge that I'll buy 10 vaccines if 10,000 other people do the same thing :)


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 14 Jun 05

If getting a group to pay in advance is desirable, here's a way to do it. This site's transaction costs strike me as way too high, although in the context of a life-saving vaccine, maybe not.

http://www.fundable.org


Posted by: mle on 14 Jun 05

People would buy the vaccine ... if it works. The problem is that "Influenza virus A(H5N1)" (H5N1 for short) is currently the most likely candidate at the moment, but no one can be certain it would be "the" (eventual) pandemic subtype. Some background: within type A, our immune systems are used to subtypes H3N2 and H1N1. Subtype H5N1 is new to humans ... but H7Nx is also new, and there are others.

So if a producer or a country makes millions of doses they may be spending in vain, as they may turn out to be useless in practice. And of course if I were a producer I would probably fear being put under some kind of martial law in day one.

My opinion is worthless compared to the opinion of real experts, of course, but I think it might make some sense to have a number of doses ready to use, because those doses could be used to create a firewall around the very first cases (anti-viral drugs are expected to be of some help in creating such a firewall), and also because being able to produce them means some work has been done in advance. But then I don't know how expensive it is to produce the first 10.000 doses - it might well be nearly as expensive as the first million if fixed costs are huge. :-?

Does anyone know for sure?

And there's also the possibility of developing more general vaccines, or faster ways to move from acknowledging the real pandemic virus to having many doses, etc. That's the work of the industry, and I honestly don't think "we" (those outside the industry) can add much to whatever "they" are doing.

So, in any case, I would rather work on the other aspects of "social preparedness". Whatever they are.


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 14 Jun 05

I'd like to think that what I did at SARSWatch.org http://www.sarswatch.org/ during the 2003 SARS outbreaks might have some use as a model -- recruit correspondants in each country, particpate via phone in CDC / WHO / press conferences, skim the scientific and popular presses, and try and summarize new developments on a daily basis. People seemed to find it useful.


Posted by: Tim on 15 Jun 05

Tim

SARSwatch.org is a great site!

I wonder what you would suggest regarding Flu: what would you do differently now that you have had the experience and the world has changed a bit?

My current experience at Wikipedia is "facts only, thank you", which is great but doesn't allow for the kind of "preparatory thinking" I feel we would need.

What would you and others "here" suggest?


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 15 Jun 05



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