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EXCLUSIVE - Better disaster preparedness and response through information technologies

Dr. Eric Rasmussen has spent decades dealing with disasters and working with vulnerable populations. His 25 years on active duty with the US Navy included deployments to multiple natural disasters and three wars. During his time there, he pioneered the speciality of humanitarian medicine, while he occupied the positions of Chairman of the Department of Medicine within the Navy teaching hospital near Seattle, Washington, and Special Advisor in Humanitarian Informatics for the US Office of the Secretary of Defense.

He is a practicing Internal Medicine physician with an additional specialty in Disaster Medicine. Currently, he is the CEO of Infinitum Humanitarian Systems (IHS), a "Profit for Purpose" social business specializing in vulnerability reduction for systems and populations. IHS staff have been involved in over a dozen deployments all over the world, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Banda Aceh, Hurricane Sandy in New York, Supertyphoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the earthquake in Nepal. IHS has led medical, public health and communications teams in war zones in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. IHS leads the Disaster Response Team of the Rodenberry Foundation.  

Dr. Rasmussen’s other roles include Research Professor for Environmental Security and Global Medicine at San Diego State University, Affiliate Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington, Visiting Researcher in Disaster Management at the Institute for Disaster Preparedness in Beijing, China, Senior Lecturer within the International Disaster Academy in Bonn, Germany, and Core Faculty at Singularity University (SU) within the NASA Ames Research Center in California.

OpenGov had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Eric Rasmussen at the launch of the Singapore Chapter of SU to learn about his work. Dr. Rasmussen talks about the growth of citizen science, facilitated by open source tools. From biometrics in Syrian refugee camps to participatory mapping in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Dr. Rasmussen tells us how developments in information technology are enabling improved threat recognition, planning and delivery of care and relief. It is about providing the most basic of human needs, food, water and shelter, to those who are suffering in a disaster, whether natural or man-made.

What does humanitarian informatics mean?

Humanitarian informatics is the recognition that without adequate understanding of the circumstances that affect human security, you respond or prepare inefficiently. So, the more information that you can accrue about the state of a population, the threats that they face, the resources they have, the better you will be able to help them prepare and help others respond when that preparation fails, and they wind up in trouble.

We do that on several axes. I lead a disaster response team for when things go truly badly.

Before that, we work on information management in slums. We work in the Philippines, Mexico, Nepal. We help communities learn what resources they have internally and what threats they face that they may not know about.

For example, there is a chemical plant upstream in a village in Tajikistan. They had no idea that such a threat existed and that they ought to make arrangements for having second and third and fourth order responses to something happening at that chemical plant, an explosion, a leak, a loss of jobs, whatever.

So information around human security is what we talk about. A lot of that is Geographic Information System (GIS) based and the US State Department, along with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGIA), runs an open GIS system called the World-wide Human Geography Data Working Group (WWHG WG), which shares information about threats and opportunities in GIS for human security. How is this information collected and processed? There’s been a great deal of citizen science that has been developed over the years. There is a lot of open source software and open source tools that help people who are inside a community, who work within that community, to find leaders and to find those who care and to gather information that they can then analyse and visualise to the larger community to help share how things are working.

Those tools are, by and large, free. They get better every year. It requires an educational process that is now also free. So slowly but surely, many sections of humanity are getting safer than they were five years ago. This is despite the fact that nature is encroaching because of damages that we have wrought through climate change, loss of biodiversity, ecosystem degradation and others.

How is that information then used? Who is supposed to take the action on that? Is it the communities themselves? Is it the governments? Is it the NGOs?

One of the magical things about information, and knowledge in general, is that it is not diminished when it is shared. So, the more people that can be informed, preferably at the level that makes most sense to them, the better off generally speaking everybody is.

Communities are taking the initiative to say, “We need to know what that earthquake is going to do with us, what that upstream deforestation is going to do to our water supply”. They are beginning to collect information, free and open source tools, some of them apps, some of them lists, some of them spreadsheets, some of them visualisation tools like Kumu. They’ll collect that information on the street, on pieces of paper, they’ll enter it into free and open source software tools. Kumu will help them visualise what’s related to what. And out of that, they can go, as the UNICEF project did in Rio de Janeiro, to local civil authorities, and say, “people are getting hurt over here, until we looked at it, we hadn’t noticed that we have had 8 people hurt there, over the last 2 years. We would like you to fix that thing before somebody else gets hurt.”

“We’ll give you 30 days to fix that thing, and then we’re talking all of this information, these photographs, the photographs of the dead children, to the newspapers but we’ll give you 30 days first.” And that worked. That was in one of the favelas in Rio. They got that bridge fixed without having to go to the newspapers. Going to newspapers might have resulted in significant repercussions that would not have been positive to anybody, but the civil authorities recognised that it was more trouble than it was worth - they should just fix the bridge. And they did. That’s all community-driven, citizen science.

One of your specialty areas is in disaster medicine. Can you tell us more about the field in general? Like every other topic associated with the care of humans, whether it’s food, water or health care, the advent of technologies that are capitalising on information improvements has done wonders to help us understand how we can take care of people better, including in disasters.

I led a team in the Kathmandu earthquake, where we wound up working both in Kathmandu and up in the village called Dharmasthali. Down in Kathmandu, I was present when the second earthquake hit with a magnitude of 7.3. We wound up setting up a roadside emergency facility because everything was already broken and then the second earthquake hit and collapsed things that were already partially collapsed and injured a lot of people.

We stopped bleeding using shrimp shells, which are composed of chitin. People were sending text messages from inside the rubble to their friends saying, “This is where I am.” That helped us understand where people were located, so that we were able to direct the earthquake search and rescue teams.

We were able to send people into the community using OpenStreetMaps through a group called Kathmandu Living Labs, and they would identify anywhere there was a family and every family got one dot.

When there were many families gathered at one location, say a park, there will be many many, many dots. Those all went over cell phone back to the Kathmandu Living Labs Group which at the time was working out of a parking lot because their building had collapsed. They got mapped and that’s what allowed us to understand where to put water filtration, where to put up a food kitchen, where to put extra medical facilities because we could see where the community were gathering in the open.

It was the people, it was kids, junior high school kids that went out and just texted where they saw people, how many and when. It was citizen science. Out of that information collection came much more efficient delivery of care and probably a reduction in the loss of lives.

How is technology changing disaster medicine?

Every single human needs a gallon of water a day. The WHO standard is 4 to 6 litres for survival and basic hygiene, every 24 hours. If you look at a place like Yarmouk, which is a displacement centre in Damascus, Syria, trying to provide clean water is extremely difficult. Trying to provide clean water in any place which doesn’t have readily accessible surface water is very difficult. Trying to clean water that might be present or contaminated with fertilisers, metals, bacteria, viruses is very difficult.

On the list of things that Singularity helped show us about 5 years ago is that there are a number of technologies that are being developed to help people do better in cleaning water. Some things clean better than others. We found one in particular, that is a spun quartz nano filament that is coated with titanium dioxide and energised by 3 frequencies of LEDs, very high intensity light and a mirror chamber as the water trickles across the mesh, the mesh looks a lot like mycelium, the mushroom-like fungi in soil. And the result of that photocatalysis on that biomimicry nanomaterial, results in eradication of viruses, bacteria, fungi, pharmaceuticals, fuels like diesel and gasoline, pesticides and removal of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, selenium and mercury. It all takes place at the rate of a thousand gallons a day, in something about 2.5 feet tall, 10 inches in diameter, and it only consumes about 570 watts, which is about one third of a hair dryer.

So that kind of capability builds on enormous sophistication and science and yet is very simple, is relatively low cost, will last a long time and is completely portable, with very little power requirement. That’s the kind of capability that exponential technologies, as they come together, can do for humanity.

You also mentioned (in a pre-interview chat) there were some work going on in Syria. Can you give us some example of how is technology being used there?

This was back in 2014 in the Yarmouk displacement camp, Damascus, just before the barrel bombs began to fall. Part of what we recognised then is that every single one of those humans needs that gallon of water a day, about 1500 calories a day, shelter, because the heat and the cold are substantial in Damascus and an identity.

We didn’t think very much about that last bit until we saw what we needed to do because keeping track of who has already received care, who has already received the daily ration is very difficult. Gangs form and vulnerable people get suppressed, while other people take advantage of that, so it turned out that we could put together a biometric recognition like Aadhaar, so when you couple that with a distributed ledger, and you link that hashed biometric to a unique ID that flows into a distributed ledger, you wind up with the ability to recognise who has received how many rations. And it turns out to be a very low overhead. It’s something easy to do, you can do it on any smartphone. Then it gets synced in the cloud. So, you can keep track of refugees in ways we’ve never able to do before.

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save The Children, International Medical Corps, my own company IHS, iRespond, which is the biometric people and the blockchain integration people. All of them came together and naturally enough it gets better and better, almost by the month. Because the software learns, the lessons get accumulated and we keep track of these things far better than we used to. The feedback loops are tighter.

You can also go out with people who are young and untrained, and they can identify, here’s a water spot, there’s a case of measles, here’s somebody who’s got bad diarrhoea, might be cholera, you want to be very careful here, incredibly contagious like the measles, particularly when you’re malnourished.

And as a consequence, information technologies are pushing the boundaries of where we can deliver effective, reliable care, which means that donors who are giving at the national level money to support these relief operations, feel reassured that less and less is wasted. Most of that driven by the kind of computational capacity that leads to better everything. 

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