A Review of Geospatial Information Technology for Natural Disaster Management in Developing Countries

A Review of Geospatial Information Technology for Natural Disaster Management in Developing Countries

Sam Herold (University of Ottawa, Canada) and Michael C. Sawada (University of Ottawa, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2038-4.ch014
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Disasters are deadly and destructive events, particularly in developing countries where economic, social, political and cultural factors increase natural hazard vulnerability. The recent devastation of the Haiti earthquake on January 12th, 2010 was a prime example of the human toll a natural disaster can take in developing regions of the world. There is an imminent need to improve natural disaster management capacity in developing countries to reduce disaster impacts. Given that disasters are spatial phenomenon, the application of geospatial information technology (GIT) is essential to the natural disaster management process. However, in developing countries there are numerous barriers to the effective use of GIT, especially at the local level, including limited financial and human resources and a lack of critical spatial data required to support GIT use to improve disaster management related decision making processes. The results of a thorough literature review suggests that currently available free and open source GIT (FOS GIT) offers great potential to overcome some of these barriers. Thus, disaster management practitioners in developing countries could harness this potential in an attempt to reduce hazard vulnerability and improve disaster management capacity. The use of FOS GIT significantly reduces software costs and can help build local level GIT knowledge/technical skills that are required for successful GIT implementation.
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Although the United Nations designated the 1990's as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), there was a global failure to reduce natural disaster impacts during that time (IFRC, 2001). Ultimately contributing to this trend are environmental degradation, rapid urbanization and social marginalization (McEntire, 1999), particularly in developing countries. The increasing number of disasters suggests that vulnerability to natural hazards is also rising and so equates to changing the geography of risk. By way of elaboration, more people are living in low-lying coastal zones, seismically hazardous areas and concentrated urban environments (Amendola et al., 2008; Briceño, 2004; Burton et al., 1993; El-Masri & Tipple, 2002). Vulnerable populations will be at increased risk, for example, as the geography and magnitude of hydrometerological hazards that are historically associated with some of the greatest disasters (Kondratyev et al., 2002) change with global climate (Smith, 2004; IPCC, 2007). Defining the geography of risk is of a major concern in general and in particular in developing countries, “where disasters jeopardize important social development goals such as addressing poverty, ensuring adequate food, water, and sanitation, and protecting the environment,” (Levy 2005, p.375). Because natural disasters have the greatest overall impact in developing countries (Alexander, 1995; Bui et al., 2000; IFRC, 2001), this is where geospatial information technologies (GIT) have the greatest potential to mitigate causalities.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the use of GIT for natural disaster management, with an emphasis on how these technologies, in particular free and open source GIS (FOS GIT) can be effectively utilized at the local level in developing countries. Although natural disasters cannot entirely be prevented, disaster losses (including human, environmental and infrastructure/personal property) can be minimized with effective disaster management – the process of mitigation, preparation, response and recovery. The field of disaster management has greatly benefited from recent advancements in computers and related information technologies. Geospatial information technologies (GIT), including geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing (RS), global positioning systems (GPS) and Internet GIS (IGIS) are currently being employed in a variety of ways to support all phases of disaster management. Since “each phase is geographically related to where people, places, and things are spatially located” (Gunes & Kovel 2000, p. 136), the entire disaster management process can be significantly enhanced through the effective use of GIT (Goodchild, 2006). “Even though the natural processes (e.g., floods, earthquakes, landslides, etc.) that generate disasters might be fundamentally different, the techniques to assess and mitigate risk, evaluate preparedness, and assist response have much in common and can share and benefit from advances in geographic information science (GIScience) (e.g., data acquisition and integration; issues of data ownership, access, and liability; and interoperability).” (Radke et al. 2000, p. 15). We propose that currently available free and open source software (FOSS) can fulfill many GIT requirements needed to improve disaster management capacity at the local level. While FOSS can create additional challenges compared to commercial solutions (Camara & Onsrud, 2004), with a clear understanding of the barriers and benefits of FOSS from a developing world perspective, FOSS is a capable and effective alternative.

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