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Research Data & Techniques Enable Better Disaster Relief Coordination

After the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake, a consortium  of staff from various organizations set up the RISEPAK website  to help coordinate relief activities.

Here is a look at how much this project achieved, not only in terms of providing an enabling environment for current relief work, but also as a template for future online disaster management in other countries.
Download brochure  |  Read website launch story

Washington D.C. January 17, 2006
—Within two months of setting up RISEPAK (Relief Information System for Earthquakes – Pakistan) as an enabling web environment to help relief agencies coordinate aid efforts and to ensure that no village was left behind, updated information on more than 950 of the 2500 villages thought to have been affected by the 2005 Pakistan earthquake was made available online.

While RISEPAK (www.risepak.com) was set up by a consortium consisting of staff from the World Bank, Harvard University, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), World Online and Pomona College, relief organizations working in the field such as Sungi, Islamic Relief and the Al Khidmat foundation quickly took ownership of it. They used the website’s pre-prepared forms to organize their own information systems, referred closely to its detailed maps, and posted many of the 1800 messages received on its notice board.

“When disaster strikes, authorities and relief workers need to make difficult choices and take coordinated action under pressure,” said L. Alan Winters, Director of the World Bank’s Development Research Group. “Based on encouraging experience with RISEPAK, we now have a low-cost template that could be adopted by countries to house data from both before and after a disaster on scores of otherwise ’nameless’ villages, including those in remote areas.”

The RISEPAK website is the first example of a direct ICT intervention by the World Bank’s Research Group in collaboration with in-country institutions. It has quickly come to stand for the relevance and usefulness of collaborative work in certain aspects of development economics research, and underlines the need for disaster preparedness.

”Available research data and techniques must be used quickly to set up coordinating tools with local institutions, particularly in geographical hotspots where disasters are waiting to happen,“ said Jishnu Das, World Bank economist closely involved with this effort. “Insights and experience from such partnerships are invaluable, both for immediate relief as well as for directions in future research.”

For instance, if local agencies had known in advance how to operate in such an environment, their inputs would have been easier to assimilate. Given the on-the-fly nature of the effort, volunteers had to work very closely with many relief agencies; training them on how to use the site and helping them design their data collection strategies.

Ali Cheema, of the LUMS faculty, reported that district governments were delighted to work with volunteers to strengthen their information systems. “The real issues are of capacity,” said Cheema, “what is needed is the ability to work in remote locations, and familiarity with data techniques.”

Although no member of the RISEPAK team has met Saghir Durrani, his message on the notice board speaks for the potential uses of such sites:

“I am really pleased to see such [a] wonderful website which provides information and updates of [the] natural disaster. I am one of those who [is] directly affected by this earthquake. My village name is Rawali Kass, it is near Harighal and just 14 km from District town of Bagh.In my village nobody has shelter…There is another village [nearby] its name is Bhurka 45 people died in first go and others are stranded under the sky as it’s 4 km from main road so no relief aid or any other rescue efforts approached them yet. I appeal to the rescue people…please see this area. Thanks.


University Volunteers in Pakistan play pivotal role in collecting and disseminating data

RISEPAK achieved much of what it set out to do chiefly because of the efforts of 40 staff and student volunteers from LUMS. Giving up their Eid celebration, these university volunteers spent the festival days working with district governments and relief organizations to systematize and update data on communities that had received assistance, and to use this data on the website.

"Not everyone believes that the focus should be on data and information,” said Shandana Mohmand, a LUMS faculty member. “Students and faculty alike have faced hard questions about why they are spending their time on this effort rather than directly involving themselves in providing relief.”

The volunteer group split into several teams that dispersed in different directions—some to Islamabad to work with relief organizations, others to the quake-affected districts where LUMS programmers helped set up data-entry systems for the authorities to use and trained staff on how to enter and record data on compensations and relief to individuals.

"As students of development economics and humanities, working in the field gave us a profound understanding of the need for co-ordination between various local, national and international agencies involved with the relief efforts, said Erum Haider, a Junior year student at LUMS.

Key insights from a large household survey of quake-affected areas

With the effort in Pakistan now moving from immediate relief to long-term recovery and reconstruction, the familiarity and expertise that LUMS built up over the first two months working with relief actors and villages is again proving invaluable.

“Working with the students in the field was an incredible experience,” said Das. “On walks, they would cross landslides, talk to every single person they met on the way, and return by torchlight well after dark. These are some of the most committed and enthusiastic people I have worked with."

Twelve teams of volunteers surveyed more than 3000 households in 18 villages—easily the largest independent survey of households after the earthquake. The survey, designed with assistance from Tara Vishwanath and Ambar Narayan of the Bank’s Pakistan Office, produced some critical insights related to disaster relief, in a report that will shortly be available on www.risepak.com

Although the feeling in Islamabad was that affected villages had evacuated, the survey found that 95% of those in the hardest-hit areas remain in their villages. Not a single person interviewed expressed any inclination to move away for the winter, despite houses being destroyed. In response to such findings, a large scale emergency shelter plan is underway during the winter.

Another common misperception is that livestock is a major source of income in the quake-affected region. However, the survey found that over 70 percent of households did not own a single domestic animal such as a buffalo, cow, or goat.

Many of the LUMS volunteers were women, who brought an added advantage to the survey in that they could freely speak with widows and other women in the villages, taking their concerns—often very different from those of the men—into account.

While men were more concerned with the need for shelter, women were anxious about the lack of warm clothing and blankets for children, and the scarcity of cooking utensils, a daily hardship. They were also sensitive to the special needs of the other women around them, such as those of single mothers.

“Talking to people in the villages unearthed stories from the recipients' point of view, revealing stresses and pressures in social systems that would exacerbate a natural disaster such as the earthquake,” said Haider.

 




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