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Keynote Address by Delilah Al-Khudhairy on behalf of the European Commission’s inhouse science service at the Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Good Afternoon Dear Colleagues,

It is also my pleasure to welcome you to the 3rd International Conference of Crisis Mappers.

As Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke have mentioned, this is the first time this conference is held in Europe, whose location was chosen for several strategic reasons, three of which I would like to highlight:

  • The European Union is the largest donor of humanitarian and development assistance globally
  • The ICT sector in the EU account for some 8% of its GDP. Furthermore, the EU also has a seven year research programme at the European level with a budget of about 12 billion euros earmarked for R&D in ICT, Security and Space to address challenges in homeland security, civil protection, health security and global security challenges, including humanitarian disasters, amongst other issues. About 9 billion euros is for ICT research alone.
  • Geneva is the host of a large number of UN Agencies and other Inter-governmental Organizations, NGOs and business companies engaged in humanitarian operations, and whose operational needs can help to guide academia, industry, research organisations and the crisis-mapping community to develop and deliver relevant and reliable products and services.

This year’s conference has been co-organised with ICT4PEACE Foundation, The Crisis Mappers and the Swiss Confederation who I would like to thank profusely for the effort and hospitality. Moreover, it has been a pleasure for our team to work closely with Daniel Staufacher, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Barbara Weekes since the beginning of this year. Our thanks are also extended to Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke for helping us to transform together the N. America Crisis Mapper Experience into a European One and with who both the JRC and ICT4Peace Foundation have been working closely during the whole year to realize this Conference. Our thanks also extend to the World Bank, ESRI and the John Carroll University who have helped with sponsoring the Conference.

The goal of the 3rd Int. Conf. for Crisis Mappers is to bring together practitioners, researchers, developers of ICT solutions and policymakers to discuss and assess the role of novel ICT solutions in the fields of emergency response and humanitarian aid interventions, as well as the challenges of main streaming ICT services and products in the operational practice of emergency response and humanitarian aid communities.

In the last decade, the use of ICT solutions has been steadily growing in the humanitarian and civil protection communities for a number of reasons: better and cheaper computers and mobile devices, cheaper and more accessible storage capability including through cloud computing, better spatial and temporal resolution satellite data and equally important better awareness and increasing confidence by the user communities in emergency response and humanitarian relief in the reliability and quality of ICT derived services and products. Today, we are seeing:

  • the growing use of ICT solutions to support humanitarian and emergency response interventions in the field
  • the accepted use of remote sensing derived products to support emergency and humanitarian interventions
  • the increasing use of Web-based platforms to support information sharing and collaborative initiatives

But, more recently, and particularly since Haiti 2010, new interesting initiatives such as voluntary crowd sourcing and social media have entered the arena.

The opportunities provided through continuously evolving ICT solutions and new sources of information such as social media and voluntary crowd sourcing come along with new challenges we must address if we wish to mainstream them in the operational workflow of emergency response and humanitarian relief- They include:

  • Massive information overload from all sorts of information sources, traditional and non-traditional
  • Massive ICT overload
  • New actors engaged in information generation

In addition, the new initiatives social media and crowd sourcing also raise the important challenge of information trust, reliability and sustainability.

The use of ICT solutions in the field, through for example, the combined use of web-based platforms and mobile devices, implies that we are able to quickly and in NRT transmit geo-located photos, videos, data communications and text reports from the field to situation centres, to voluntary initiatives, and to also share with and between actors in the field.  How do we build trust, reliability and sustainability in developments related to practitioner and voluntary information generation initiatives?

Remote sensing derived products and traditionally produced geo-information layers are routinely used today in support to emergency and humanitarian preparedness and response.  Usable, reliable and trusted products are key characteristics of products provided today by traditional service or information providers. Again, how do we build trust, reliability and sustainability in novel developments related to the new voluntary information generation type initiatives building around remote sensing and other geo-information data that we have seen evolve since Haiti last year?

Timeliness of relevant and trusted information is essential in the emergency and response phase of any crisis. Today, in the civilian domain, for a number of reasons, there are limited improvements we can expect from satellite-derived information in terms of providing a situational awareness at time intervals much more frequent than 24 hours on a daily basis over the same crisis spot. Therefore, there is an expected interest by actors in the emergency and humanitarian relief communities in understanding the limitations and added value of the use of field-based practitioner sensing and voluntary community sensing to address information gaps. In a number of recent disasters, the mainstream media appear to have taken up crisis mapping solutions as an integral part of the reporting. This is not yet necessarily the case in the emergency and humanitarian relief communities. Why?

The traditional emergency and humanitarian relief processes were designed around sharing information between known and trusted teams and their partners – they were not designed to easily integrate information from new sources such as social media or voluntary geo-information production initiatives. They also cannot always adapt quickly their workflows to accommodate new ICT solutions, new voluntary crisis mapping teams or to quickly integrate local volunteered information.

This means there is still a lot of work ahead of us to build more trust in new ICT uses and to systemize and mainstream this in the operational workflow of emergency and humanitarian relief communities. And this also applies to new crisis crowd sourced and voluntarily generated geo-information. 

Furthermore, we should keep in mind that Natural Disasters, conflicts and other types of disasters are not reducing. The total number of disaster events is trending up: The first half of 2011 has already produced more events than most years before 2006. This increasing trend will ofcourse add a strain on practitioners engaged in emergency preparedness and response, who have to save lives and improve the well being of survivors, particularly those who have a mandate to act in disasters and crises inside and outside the EU or widely outside the EU. They need trusted, reliable and sustainable information and tools that they can easily integrate in their operational workflow. Therefore, we have two enormous challenges ahead of us:

  • Building and maintaining trust, reliability and sustainability as a regular feature in traditional geo-information products and ICT services
  • A better understanding of the challenges, the needs and design for trust, reliability and sustainability of new sources of information originating from community sensing or crowd source mapping or other, and how best to use them in complement to traditional geo-information products and ICT services.

What we wish to avoid, particularly for the practitioner, is to have more information at the expense of having less relevant, less reliable and less trustworthy information. Trust, reliability and sustainability will remain the largest challenge.

We must remember that one of the key success measures in emergency and humanitarian relief response is whether the ICT services and geo-information products or the novel volunteered crowd sourced information can or has helped to save more lives, to further improve the well being of affected communities, and to further increase our society’s resilience to future disasters.

Only then, should and can these technological solutions be integrated by the EU and international disaster response actors in their operational work flow.

Over the years, the EC office for humanitarian aid and civil protection, better known as DG ECHO, has continuously addressed these challenges with the scientific and technical support of the EC’s JRC. Today, DG ECHO’s crisis monitoring information centre is equipped with continuously improved ICT based solutions for early warning, alerting, crisis mapping, and information sharing as well as training support helping it to build an enhanced European disaster preparedness and response capability. However, there is always room for improvements in the field of monitoring and situational awareness, and the interesting new challenges that lie ahead of us in concerning field-based practitioner sensing or voluntary information generation raise the question of what added value can they provide in complement to current usage of ICT services and products, and what should we do to render them trusted, reliable and sustainable?

The underpinning theme of this year’s Conference, Mainstreaming, depicts the challenges of trust, reliability and sustainability of information and services. I hope that over the next two days, we can bring to a fore the discussion on the added value and challenges of mainstreaming ICT solutions and especially voluntary crisis information generation in the operational workflow of emergency responders and humanitarian relief actors, so that we come up with a number of recommendations for practitioners, policy-makers, industry and the research community.

A warm Welcome once again and I look forward to a productive conference with useful conclusions and recommendations.

Thank you.