Disaster data is a disaster, but not for long.


Author: Jesse Anton, CEO and Co-founder at Whitespace

Date: 05 February 2018

This article is based on an interview I conducted with Julio Serje, a data scientist formerly working with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

Whitespace has collaborated with UNDRR over the years on a number of initiatives, the most significant being the Sendai Framework Monitor. We helped design this system, which is enabling the world to gather and analyze global disaster data related to climate change and other man-made and natural disasters.

Exploring the meaning of extensive risk with Julio Serje, UNDRR data scientist

In 2017 Whitespace was selected by UNISDR – now known as UNDRR – to work on a project of global importance. We were tasked with designing a prototype for a system that would allow Nation States to monitor progress on targets and indicators for the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.

The Sendai Framework is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders. It aims for the following outcome:

The substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.

This large and ambitious project gave us the opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant and dedicated people at UNISDR, among them Julio Serje. Julio is a leading expert on Sendai and is the creator of DesInventar, "a tool for generating National Disaster Inventories and constructing databases that capture information on damage, loss and general effects of disasters."

Julio was kind enough to share his perspective on the challenges facing today's disaster risk reduction (DRR) stakeholders, as well as the opportunities created by Sendai and the recently launched Sendai Framework Monitor.

Whitespace: 2017 was another big year for disasters. Over the summer we witnessed hurricanes and earthquakes that caused enormous human suffering and economic loss in the Caribbean, United States, and Mexico. And we’ve had several high-profile disasters in the recent past, from the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, to the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti, to the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Given the shocking nature of these individual events and the dramatic media coverage they receive, are we losing sight of the bigger picture?

Julio Serje: I like how you put it; we've definitely lost sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes, the big trees don't let you see that there's a lot of small trees, that it's a much more complex panorama than what you see. These big things, as you say, make people think – and unfortunately make many governments think – that the big thing is big disasters. That causes them to reason in two ways.

One, that most of the political agenda is now geared towards looking into these large-scale disasters because these are the disasters that give or take political gains. Because these are the ones where governments and politicians will be mostly looked at and judged by. However, this is what we've been trying to do for years, namely to take that smoke curtain away and help people look at extensive risk. The word has actually spread and now many many people are starting to use the term when they talk about disaster risk reduction. This is something that we keep pushing for. However, in the political agenda, working to reduce extensive risk is not as important for politicians as responding to these large-scale disasters.

Whitespace: So you're saying that the short-term, "react and respond" nature of these large-scale disasters gets more attention than the long-term, proactive, risk reduction approach?

Julio Serje: That's one thing. The second thing is that, for example, in India, a year ago when the big cyclone happened, they were saying, "Look, 20 years ago we lost 20,000 people in an event like this, now it was only 120." Which means that the preparations for large-scale disasters can be very successful and can be used politically for the gain of those who are doing the risk reduction; which is fair and we are very happy about it.

However, that doesn't happen with extensive risk. There is no political gain because today for mitigating small and medium disasters because they are not newsworthy. The importance in the news of these small and medium disasters is never comparable to what a large scale disaster can do. On one hand, the cumulative damage of extensive risk is huge, but on the other side is not visible, which seems to be a contradiction but it's true. This is what is really stopping the actions towards the big picture as you were correctly pointing out. The big picture is to be able to work on what we call the strata of risk. You have to work at the different layers of risk, and this is what we call a holistic approach.

Large-scale disasters will continue to happen. But we cannot forget those small frequent and infrequent disasters. One major achievement, I believe, of the work that we've done is that these words are expressly stated in design of the Sendai Framework. And they are starting to permeate the awareness of many politicians and disaster risk reduction practitioners around the world. Hopefully, it will improve.

It’s absolutely unrealistic to think that we’ll meet the SDG targets if countries aren’t better prepared to reduce disaster risk. (Julio Serje)

Whitespace: Can you clarify for us what you mean by extensive risk?

Julio Serje: Extensive risk is these smaller but much more frequent disasters – local landslides, local flash foods, small floods, episodes of heavy rain – that make a lot of damage but are very localized. They are not countrywide, nor do they have a huge mortality or cause a large amount of destruction. In fact they are relatively small and usually contained. But the key is that they are also very frequent, and the cumulative damage of these small and medium, but very frequent disasters is huge.

Based on data that we have collected in many countries, we have compared the impact of these small and medium disasters in economic terms, and the costs are almost as big as the impacts of large scale disasters. In terms of mortality, large-scale disasters bring intensive risk; they still concentrate most of the mortality because their nature. But in terms of economic damage, extensive disasters are huge.

Extensive disasters mostly affect the poor populations. Because the poor are the ones who are living in disaster-prone areas, in vulnerable conditions, in places that are exposed, this is where the damage is happening. And unfortunately, it's where people are poverty trapped. In fact, these disasters are a major factor that keep people in poverty. It's a vicious cycle that has to be broken if the Sustainable Development Goals that the world has set up for the next 15 years are to be reached.

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Whitespace: Would you agree with the Secretary General when he says that it's going to be very difficult to meet these SDGs with countries always facing these disasters?

Julio Serje: Yes, it's absolutely unrealistic to think that we'll meet the SDG targets if countries aren't better prepared to reduce disaster risk. This is something that is already on the minds of many people. But again, probably some of these statements are still based on the concept of large-scale disasters. The statement that the SDGs will never be achieved in countries that are constantly being flattened and rebuild has to be extended to the micro level.

In mathematics, there's a way to describe this which is the word "fractal". A fractal is something that resembles itself at a smaller scale. A good example of this is a tree. A branch of a tree is also very similar to a tree. It has a main trunk and branches, and these branches have a trunk and smaller branches and so on and so forth. There are many examples of fractals in nature, and disasters are also a fractal. The media and politicians are looking only at the big ones, but as you go down in scale you will find very similar things that happen at different scales.

Whitespace: You mentioned poverty as a factor. Are there other factors involved? And do you think that disasters are increasing due to climate change or the fact that we're building more along coastlines? What's the exposure equation and how does that play into it?

Julio Serje: I think it's all of the above. I would probably add that bad planning is a huge factor in this. Which is associated with a lack of resources in countries. On the one hand, you have chronic poverty in a given population, which is one big factor because people in poverty have very limited choices of investment in better housing and better building locations. But it's also a question of planning. In many countries there are no resources to actually plan, execute, and enforce urban plans that assist citizens in managing the risk.

Again, this is a problem that has to be seen at all scales and as a problem of development. This exposure is because of population growth. The more people we are, the more space we have to occupy and the more possibilities that we build in the wrong places.

I’ve seen people living in cardboard houses, where moving to a risk-prone area and into a real house is a huge improvement. How can you blame them? It’s very difficult. (Julio Serje)

This happens even in fully-developed countries. When you see floods in Europe, the US, and East Asia, you see that as our population has increased, we tend to expand into riskier zones. And for commercial reasons, we still make wrong decisions. We build on coastlines because there's a good view or because it's a posh neighborhood, or whatever. But then you are still developing in the wrong places. It's very challenging, I believe, to follow all the rules and all the recommendations and go against social pressure, which is very difficult to manage.

Now, in poor countries, the problem is exponential because it's a combination of the poverty of people that have no resources to invest in their own safety and their own security, and the lack of resources in poor countries that do not allow countries to act.

I remember in one of my first missions to Africa when I came and I started speaking with some people about risk reduction. There was some guy that was deeply skeptical about what we were saying. He said, "Look, what you're saying sounds very nice, but actually I do not think we can do many things that you are proposing because, for us, it's more important right now to put in place the water system that people urgently need, or the school that the community needs. Investing in risk reduction, or to even thinking about retrofitting buildings and so on ... we just don't have the money."

Since then, we've shifted the dialogue in a great manner to say, "Look, if you cannot invest in risk, at least whatever you do, try to think twice to make it safer before you do it." And here we come to the whole story about risk-proofing public investment, which is now starting to permeate the awareness of politicians. The question is, how can countries with low resources do adequate planning and development in a smart way so that what they do is not creating new risks?

I believe that in many cases it's an unsolvable problem. You use the land that you have or you don't. It's hard to develop a city by restricting yourself to places that are safe. The cities make calls like this. They say, "Look, we will have to develop this area of the city. It has risks, but we will be able to provide water, to build the sewage, roads, etc., because it's the only place we have resources to do so."

The truth is that we’re making progress. There’s more and more political pressure on governments, and now there are signs that tell us that we’re getting better at managing risk. I’m not trying to paint a too pessimistic picture. There are many organizations, communities, governments, and people that are working on disaster risk reduction. It’s not perfect, but, we’re getting there. (Julio Serje)

Whitespace: Since we're on the topic of economic development, other people have written about this and have pointed to the fact that there are structural silos in place between disaster and risk reduction issues, versus development issues, versus climate issues ... when in fact they're all interlinked. Yet still, in the international community and in national government administrations, people behave as if they're separate topics.

Julio Serje: Yes, and there is still a big big problem which is the issue of acceptable risk, not only from the public sector, but also from the private sector and from the citizens themselves. What is the level of risk that you would accept? Let's assume you live in poverty and are given the opportunity to finally have a roof and a place to shelter your family. Even if there is a high-risk component, many citizens would say, "Yes, I will go for it even if it's risky."

It's the same with governments. Governments take risky decisions because they know that risk is still a probability. For politicians, it's a bet. "I will build this new development and I will look good. And if in the next 10 years nothing terrible happens, I will be retired by then anyway, so it's not my problem when disaster strikes."

And in some cases it's understandable. I've seen people living in cardboard houses, where moving to a risk-prone area and into a real house is a huge improvement. How can you blame them? It's very difficult.

Whitespace: Where does the private sector come into all of this?

Julio Serje: The private sector, interestingly enough, also thinks about risk and they invest in risky zones with eyes wide open. They factor in risk as a contingency and they even purposely build in risk areas because from the investment point of view it is profitable.

Whitespace: Sounds gloomy. Are things going to get worse before they get better?

Julio Serje: The truth is that we're making progress. There's more and more political pressure on governments, and now there are signs that tell us that we're getting better at managing risk. I'm not trying to paint a too pessimistic picture. There are many organizations, communities, governments, and people that are working on disaster risk reduction. It's not perfect, but, we're getting there.

Whitespace: That dovetails into the topic of the Sendai Framework, and how people are organizing worldwide around that. Maybe you could give us an overview? Which institutions are involved and what are the aims of the framework?

Julio Serje: The framework is a relatively simple document. It provides recommendations to governments and practitioners – in other words, the people that are doing planning development, public investment, disaster management and so on. The framework is organized in four areas of action and is based on three decades of previous work measuring the tools and activities that are the most profitable, so to say, in terms of risk reduction.

First thing that you have to do is to know about your hazards, your vulnerabilities, your exposure (the risk) so you can act accordingly. The other three priorities are organized around actions that governments can do – how countries can organize internally so that this knowledge feeds development plans, risk reduction plans, and so on.

One priority is about why and how countries should invest in risk, and how public investment could be better guided so that it doesn't create new risk.

Then there's also a priority on how countries should prepare for disasters because things will still happen. A lot of measures that can be put in place, such as early warning systems and community networks. Which is connected with resilience and how communities will rebound after these hazardous events hit. It is about considering the whole cycle around the occurrence of disasters; how do you reduce your risk, are you prepared, and how do you rebound afterward. The framework address all these things.

Whitespace: So there's hope.

Julio Serje: Indeed, there are signs that show us that things are getting better. Risk reduction is very effective. Earlier I mentioned the example of the cyclone in India. Let's consider the recent earthquake in Mexico – it was really really bad, I know, with over 200 fatalities; I don't know the precise number – but the same earthquake, 40 years ago with a lot less people around, would have killed thousands.

You can see that there's progress in many areas. We have looked into the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, and for countries that lie in the hurricane zone of the world, the likelihood of being killed by a hurricane is today less than half it was a decade ago or two decades ago. The risk of mortality has been very much addressed by these measures.

We have been very successful with early warning systems, prediction systems, shelter systems, and so on. This is partly why mortality is dropping. The challenge we face is that, while you can get yourself to a shelter, you cannot bring your livestock, you cannot take your crops, your house will still be exposed. So economic losses are still the fastest growing impact of disasters. There's increasing pressure to start looking into this in an integrated manner, together with the whole set of mortality prevention actions.

Whitespace: The framework covers some of that, does it not? You mentioned that there's a whole data collection and reporting aspect to the Sendai Framework that will help us measure economic loss alongside human loss.

Julio Serje: Yes. This is related to what I was saying about priority number one, which is understanding risk and understanding the impact. Understanding how risks and how disasters are impacting our world is a very important thing because this knowledge will allow us to act in a sensible manner.

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Whitespace: In other words, you can't act without measuring. Is that what you're saying?

Julio Serje: Exactly. But most importantly, how and where do you act on this information? The information about losses is extremely important because in addition to helping you understand hazards and risks and vulnerabilities and so on, it is also eventually providing the justification – the political imperative – for investments.

A typical example of this is we've been developing something called cost-benefit analysis for investing in risk. It's essentially the business case of disaster risk reduction. For example, you say, "Okay, I'm going to build a flood protection mechanism that costs $200 million." How do you justify this? On one hand, yes, it will help you reduce mortality.

This is a gray area where there's a very big political cause. But if you can make the economic case, you can convince politicians to act in their own interest. How much are current losses? By how much will these losses be cut in the future? How much is our government investing every year in cleaning up from emergencies, rebuilding, etc. As the Secretary General would say, for the countries being flattened, how much does it cost the government and how much will these investments reduce that cost? With this information, you can make an economic case for disaster prevention. It is very interesting to see how information on risk and losses is the only way to support this analysis, which is actually the only way to justify the investments.

Whitespace: In some countries, how difficult is it to collect the raw data in the first place?

Julio Serje: It's very difficult for many reasons. One is that disaster data is a disaster, because it is collected under very harsh circumstances without having the best communication. It is collected by people who are not necessarily savvy about data processing; it's collected by firefighters, emergency managers, people that are doing search and rescue. The information collected is not absolutely precise, and in many countries, it is still a very approximate evaluation.

That being said, more and more countries, practitioners and emergency services are seeing the need to get out, harvest, and store this data. The quality of data is improving. The hope is that all of this data collected in the little village where a landslide happened makes its way through the chain of communication and is loaded into a national disaster management database. After that it will ultimately come to our central repository of data at UNISDR. That is something that we've been working on for years; going country by country and preaching the value of data collection.

Disaster data is a disaster. That being said, more and more countries, practitioners and emergency services are seeing the need to get out, harvest, and store this data. The quality of data is improving. (Julio Serje)

Whitespace: What progress have you made?

Julio Serje: The case for loss data is very interesting because we started collecting this data 20 years ago. It started as a small initiative in Latin America and was adopted by the UN 3 years later. Today we have data from almost 100 countries. That data has fed the the discussions around the Sendai Framework. The data has enabled us to talk about extensive risks. The knowledge that this data has generated has permeated the community.

If you see how the targets and indicators of the Sendai Framework are structured, you can map them almost one-to-one to what we collect in our disaster loss databases. The fact that we have collected this data and have demonstrated its value has made many countries agree, "Okay, we need to make this a mandatory exercise."

Four out of the seven targets of the Sendai Framework are based on this data because it's about understanding risk; about seeing if we're doing well or not; about creating the political justification to continue; about measuring. It goes all around the entire cycle of risk reduction.

Sometimes it can be complex. The complexity of what we want to do now is much higher than the complexity of what we started doing a few years ago. On the one hand, we are asking countries to collect more loss data at the global level. We're also asking countries to collect information on what they are doing about reducing risk. What we are calling today the Sendai Framework Monitor system, is trying to look at both sides of the coin. It's looking at the outcomes or the outputs of the process in terms of losses. But it's also looking at the other side in what countries are doing in order to reduce their risk.

It's a very interesting and relatively simple concept that translates into a complex system.

You at Whitespace – of all people, you guys know best because you were involved in the development of the prototype. So you know how much effort it took, how difficult it was to conceive of a system that would allow countries to look at both sides of the coin. Based on the prototype that Whitespace designed, phase 1 development of the Sendai Framework Monitor is now complete!

Whitespace: Yes, our agency was fortunate to be involved in helping you create the concept for the Sendai Framework Monitor. This was quite a complicated application to conceive, with many different roles, regional layers and reporting cycles running over a period of 15 years. Our role is to try to make the complex feel simple, but in this case, I have to say it really wasn't easy! The technical notes were both voluminous and challenging to grasp, and a lot of business analysis was required before we could advance with prototyping.

After considerable effort by the core team, the prototype was finally revealed and user tests conducted at the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in Cancun back in June 2017. There has also been a panel of countries testing the prototype. What has been the feedback so far from the end users?

Julio Serje: We got excellent feedback from the prototype. Of course we received suggestions and questions and things, but the feedback was invaluable for learning. The prototype was so well done that some of the comments that countries gave us was, "Look, the prototype is very good, but I tried to save the data and it's not saving the data."

Whitespace: They thought it was the real thing.

Julio Serje: Yes, the sense of reality with the prototype was so keen that countries were actually expecting that the data that they were entering was to be saved. Of course, we had to explain them, "No, look, this prototype is only a mock-up. It doesn't actually have a database behind it; it's just a tool that you can test; it will help us learn what we should build." So yes, we got comments like these from countries that went deep into the prototype and tested it and they were actually expecting it to work.

Whitespace: How are you going to help the different member states get the most value out of this monitoring system? Because as we mentioned, it is quite complex and in some cases some countries are less advantaged than others in terms of resources for data collection and reporting.

Julio Serje: The monitoring of Sendai requires a relatively complex system with many indicators. Countries will have to mobilize their own institutions and get them to collect data. It will require a lot of effort from countries – we are aware of this. We are preparing a whole strategy to support countries to make this a reality. We know that countries will need capacity; the countries will need training.

Our strategy has several pillars. One pillar is a communication strategy and this has already started. Together with you at Whitespace, we built a prototype and we exposed it to member states and we got feedback from them. On the one hand, the user testing was helpful for refining the prototype. But perhaps even more importantly, the prototype became part of our communication strategy to make countries aware and to have ownership of what we're doing. When users participate in the design process, they are more likely to adopt the final product.

User testing of the Sendai Framework Monitor prototype in Cancun – June 2017
User testing of the Sendai Framework Monitor prototype in Cancun – June 2017

The second pillar of the communication strategy is a capacity building exercise. Training is the key. UNISDR is working with partners such as the Global Education and Training Institute (GETI) in Korea on "training the trainers". We are also working with the Asian Disaster Prevention Center in Thailand, and we expect to work a lot with UNDP so we can actually have a global reach.

Whitespace: There's the tie-in between disaster risk reduction and development right there.

Julio Serje: Exactly. UNDP is a very large institution, it's the biggest of the UN agencies by the way. They have offices in almost in every country of the world. We have to work together on this in order to achieve scale.

Let me be very clear about something. If we don't address the disaster risk reduction issue now, the impacts of disasters, especially climate hazards, will be absolutely overwhelming. (Julio Serje)

Whitespace: Let's fast forward 15 years when the Sendai Framework reporting cycles have come to a close. What do you see?

Julio Serje: Well, I believe that the trend of reducing mortality risk will continue. I hope that fewer people, at least in relative terms, will have to die because of natural hazards. Climate change is creating a lot of uncertainty right now, because we are only just starting to see what's really going to happen with this planet. We probably will face a situation in which we're doing much better in disaster reduction and reducing losses, but there may be factors that could counteract our efforts. Maybe the level of economic losses will continue to increase.

But let me be very clear about something. If we don't address the disaster risk reduction issue now, the impacts of disasters, especially climate hazards, will be absolutely overwhelming.

Whitespace: Doing nothing is not an option.

Julio Serje: Precisely. We know that we will continue to have children, the population will continue to grow, and our societies will continue to expand. So exposure increase will continue to be a factor. I hope that if we work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, smarter development will lead to better lives and safer and more resilient communities.

This has to be seen not only from the Sendai Framework perspective - it's a matter for the international community as a whole. We have to act and continue acting, and not become discouraged by large-scale disasters. 15 years is still very short. But again, if we do nothing, the impact of disasters is going to be much worse.

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