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Mitigating disasters with help from ‘above’

By ensuring that all countries, regional and international organisations have access to all types of space-based information, the United Nation’s UN-SPIDER is helping nations to combat the adverse impacts of disasters

In disaster situations, situational awareness is decisive. Satellite imagery and earth observation products provide reliable data for decision makers before, during and after an emergency or a disaster. Such data can help anticipate, minimise or prevent the adverse impacts of disasters. The United Nations recognises the importance to access and use of space-based information and earth observation to both reduce disaster risks and improve disaster response — especially in developing countries. Unfortunately, many countries still cannot use space technologies for their benefit. This is why, in 2006, the General Assembly created United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, UN-SPIDER in short. UN-SPIDER’s mandate is clear cut: ‘Ensure that all countries, international and regional organisations have access to and develop the capacity to use all types of space-based information to support the full disaster management cycle’. The programme is implemented by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA) and has global offices in Vienna, Beijing, and Bonn.

The Value of Geo-Information for Disaster and Risk Management (www.un-spider.org/valid), a recent publication elaborated by UN-SPIDER and the Joint Board of Geospatial Information Societies (JB GIS), outlines the potential financial benefits of using geospatial information in the case of disasters and disaster risks. The publication is largely based on a stakeholder evaluation which reiterated that the user community greatly appreciates the benefits of spacebased information not just to support emergency response operations but also to map and monitor risks in order to reduce public and private losses and to support disaster risk reduction strategies for hazards such as floods, earthquakes, droughts, fires or landslides. Unfortunately, while space technologies are widely recognised as useful, they are not yet accessible to all countries. The reasons are manifold and range from lack of awareness to lack of funds and personnel. This is the gap that UN-SPIDER aims to close.

Building capacities
Some countries face great challenges and limitations with respect to the integration of space technologies into disaster risk management and emergency response efforts. Sometimes, practitioners or policy makers are not fully aware of the potential of these technologies. Sometimes, even if they are aware, they do not know how and/or where to access such data. In other cases yet, they might not have the capacities to adequately process, use or share the data or products they have received or produced. This can be due to a lack of technology, lack of trained staff or the absence of appropriate policies.

UN-SPIDER therefore places great emphasis on building the capacities of institutions and individuals in order to allow them to make better use of satellite data. Technical advisory support is a main pillar in the programme’s work. The main target groups for these activities include governmental disaster risk management and emergency response agencies, research institutions, as well as regional and international organisations. The support ranges from providing policy-relevant advice to institutions and governments to the facilitation of access to space-based information in emergency situations via the UN-SPIDER network. For example, when Typhoon Hayian affected the Philippines in November 2013, UN-SPIDER compiled all freely available satellite information and maps and made them available on its Knowledge Portal.

One of the key ways in which UN-SPIDER provides support is through its five-day Technical Advisory Missions. During these missions UN-SPIDER brings a team of international experts to a requesting country to evaluate the existing national capacity to use space-based information, to analyse the current institutional framework, and to identify existing constraints and gaps regarding the use of such information in all phases of the disaster management cycle. The team meets with heads of all relevant organisations in the country, including governmental agencies, UN entities, non-governmental organisations, academic institutions and private sector representatives involved in disaster risk management and emergency response. They look into issues related to plans, policies, data sharing, coordination, institutional set-ups and national spatial database infrastructures. Typically, a one-day workshop involving all stakeholders is an important element of these missions. The mission team also highlights ways to access satellite information via the existing international mechanisms for emergency support, such as the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters. This mechanism is a global collaboration of space agencies which support requesting countries with satellite-based maps in disaster situations. In 2012, the mechanism rolled out its Universal Access approach allowing Member States to become Authorised Users and to request its activation in case of major disasters.

UN-SPIDER’s Technical Advisory Missions are carried out in response to an official request made by the respective Member State and result in a report with recommendations, follow-up actions and suggestions on guidelines and policies on disaster and disaster risk management issues. In 2013, UN-SPIDER provided technical advisory support to 24 countries worldwide, including Technical Advisory Missions to Ghana, Indonesia, Malawi and Vietnam.

Building up on these Technical Advisory Missions, UN-SPIDER and its partners provide technical training courses. For example, in May 2013, UN-SPIDER carried out a technical training course in the Dominican Republic to strengthen the remote sensing capacities of the members of an inter-institutional geospatial information team to derive flood-related information from optical satellite imagery using GIS and remote sensing software. This activity targeted 27 professionals from 15 ministries, government organisations and universities which have set up the Inter-Institutional Team on Geospatial Information for Disaster-Risk Management and Emergency Response in the Dominican Republic. Other training courses in 2013 were held in Bangladesh, Mozambique and Sudan.

Participants at the UN-SPIDER expert meeting on early warning systems in Bonn in June 2013

A gateway to space-based information
For disaster and disaster-risk managers, fast and easy access to relevant information and knowledge is essential. The UN-SPIDER Knowledge Portal (www.un-spider.org) serves as a gateway to relevant information regarding the use of space technologies in the context of disasters. The UN-SPIDER team continuously and systematically compiles the knowledge held by individuals and institutions in the form of good practices, data sources, tools and lessons learned. The aim of the Knowledge Portal is to make available all this relevant knowledge in a global and user-friendly way.

Among the main services of the portal is the Space Application Matrix. This application serves as the search engine to a database that contains around 200 case studies and scientific papers searchable by hazard type, disaster phase, and space technologies. Another important feature of the portal is the Links and Resources section. It contains a database of freely available satellite imagery and derived products as well as a database focusing on GIS and remote sensing software.

Building bridges
UN-SPIDER was created to close the communication gap between the communities involved in space technologies and those involved in disaster response and disaster risk management. The programme does so by organising international conferences, workshops and expert meetings on various topics. In the past years, UN-SPIDER organised events on crowdsource mapping, early warning systems, rapid response mapping, or disaster risk identification, assessment and monitoring. For example, in October 2013, UN-SPIDER brought together close to 130 participants in Beijing from 39 countries for the ‘United Nations International Conference on Spacebased Technologies for Disaster Management: Disaster Risk Identification, Assessment and Monitoring’. The participants represented more than 75 organisations, including civil protection agencies, disaster management agencies, space agencies, research institutions, science and technology agencies, environmental and natural resources authorities and other government and non-governmental agencies.

Bonn Expert Meeting 2014
On June 5 & 6 , 2014, UN-SPIDER will gather international experts in Bonn to discuss the role of earth observation and other space technologies for drought and flood risk management. Among others, this expert meeting will focus on recent big flood and drought events such as the super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or the extensive droughts in Bolivia in 2013. The El Niño phenomenon which will possibly develop in the second half of 2014 as forecast by the World Meteorological Organization will also be discussed. The application deadline for this event is April 22, 2014. (For more information log on to, https://www.un-spider.org/ BonnExpertMeeting2014)

A global network
The UN-SPIDER network currently includes 16 regional support offices. These institutions are space agencies, research institutions, disaster and risk management agencies and remote sensing agencies. Together they form a powerful pool of resources and technical as well as regional knowledge. The regional support offices are heavily involved in elaborating useful material for the knowledge portal. Currently, several ‘recommended practices’ are being developed including step-by-step methodologies on the use of spacebased information for different hazards.

Although UN-SPIDER does not have own satellite imagery available, the programme relies on its strong network to provide the necessary information in case of emergencies or disasters. For example, when Iraq requested UN-SPIDER to support with the provision of satellite data to deal with the extensive floods the country experienced in November 2013, the programme activated its network to facilitate the acquisition of high resolution satellite imagery provided by the China National Space Administration. Similarly, UN-SPIDER facilitated the provision of satellite data via its network and the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters when Typhoon Bopha hit the island nation of Palau and the Philippines in December 2012.

Demonstration during the Technical Advisory Mission to Kenya in March 2014

What the future holds
The UN-SPIDER community continues to grow rapidly. In 2013 alone, three regional support offices joined the network. The launch of the Spanish version of the website in February 2014 sparked new visits from the Spanish-speaking community. In the course of 2014, a French version will complement this effort. UN-SPIDER also plans to include several new and relevant features into its knowledge portal, such as a series of hands-on recommended practices for the use of space-based information in the context of disasters elaborated by its network of regional support offices.

In March 2015, the global community will gather in Sendai, Japan to discuss the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction. The importance of space-based information was highlighted in the outcome document The future we want of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. UN-SPIDER and UNOOSA will continue to work for recognition of the value of spacebased information for sustainable development in the post- 2015 development framework and the sustainable development goals.