After forming in the Pacific Ocean on March 6, 2015, Cyclone Pam left a path of destruction across the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu before making landfall in Vanuatu on March 13 as a Category 5 storm. All of the island nations affected suffered serious damage to infrastructure, homes, crops, livestock, and water and sanitation systems.
In Vanuatu, communications across the country were crippled, with only one cellular tower in Port Vila remaining operational. The power grid was devastated as well and officials estimated repairs would take weeks (WFP, ETC, 14 Mar 2015). The islands of Erromango and Tanna suffered catastrophic damage and were out of contact for two days, and four days after the storm, nearly 60 of Vanuatu’s inhabited islands remained cut off from the outside world (BBC, 17 Mar 2015). As of March 26, 15,000 homes in Vanuatu were destroyed, and 75,000 residents were in need of emergency shelter (OCHA, 26 Mar 2015).
Tropical Cyclone Pam’s Track March 12 – 14, 2015
In order to assist the people of Vanuatu and organizations deploying to the country, Humanity Road volunteers carried out a “digital disaster response” from March 11-27, 2015 consisting of two activations.
From March 11-27, 2015, Humanity Road self-activated to monitor social media and the impacts of the cyclone.
The Disaster Response objectives were to:
- amplify official information to enhance public awareness; information included emergency and information hotlines, areas most impacted, status of communications, status of airports, roads, basic needs, shelters, embassies, animal needs, status of hospitals, etc.
- search for impacts and urgent needs using social media and the Internet
- connect communities and individuals with needs to relief organizations in the field
- publish and share situation and other reports on appropriate platforms in a timely manner
- and to support partners with research and/or special reports if needed
The Process Improvement objective was to:
- continue testing Scanigo as a twitter aggregation tool for data-mining
Soon after publication of our first situation report on Vanuatu, we received a request from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) representative on Tonga to share our daily situation reports with DFAT in Canberra and a list of Australian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) requiring information on relief needs. In response to the request, Humanity Road volunteers completed eight situation reports between March 14 and 21.
As part of this activation, volunteers also produced five 3W (“Who, What, Where”) reports between March 16 and 26 listing agencies responding to the disaster in Vanuatu. The final report listed 110 organizations and included separate categories for medical and communications teams.
All of these reports were published on Humanity Road’s website, ReliefWeb, the All Partners Access Network (APAN), HumanitarianResponse.info, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair’s (UNOCHA’s) Virtual On-Site Operations Coordination Centre (OSOCC). They were also shared directly via email with DFAT and NGOs, including Americares, Nethope, Cisco TACops and the Microsoft Disaster Team.
From March 14-26, 2015, Humanity Road activated a second time in response to a request from the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to support UNOCHA. More about DHN’s activation can be found on the DHN blog: “Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu”.
The Disaster Response objectives for this activation were to:
- use social media and Scanigo to determine locations of injured people, medical needs, and damaged healthcare facilities and infrastructure
- find mutual aid partners to help accomplish the project
- and to coordinate with GISCorps to produce crisis maps
The Process Improvement objective was to:
- test surge support activation collaboration using Scanigo
For this activation, Humanity Road requested and received mutual aid from:
- PeaceGeeks – provided volunteers, including (including a former resident of Vanuatu who was fluent in Bislama) to assist Humanity Road volunteers in conducting Internet and social media research to source information on infrastructure and hospital damage on affected islands.
- Montgomery County Maryland CERT (MCCERT) and Progeny Systems – provided volunteers to conduct data-mining using Scanigo to search Twitter for information on health needs and health facility damage. This included locations of hospitals, hospitals impacted, hospital conditions, reported fatalities, reported injuries, food and water status, and urgent needs which were then given to the GISCorps mapping team.
- GISCorps – provided volunteers who utilized the data from Humanity Road’s mutual aid team to create a Social Media Early Indications Map. A second map showing a more detailed assessment of health and facilities on each affected island was also created but was moved to beta status for future analysis and improvement.
The number of requests for our situation reports increased from past responses showing a growing trust in our information. We received numerous compliments on our work from government agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders, which reaffirmed the usefulness and applicability of our work. Antoine Bertout from the World Food Programme stated, “It looks like the effort is quickly making a difference on the ground”. Our social media map was published by the prime minister of Vanuatu on his Facebook page only a few hours after publication.
Our ability to request and receive mutual aid and collaborate with partners became more effective. Our continuing work with our partners is leading to greater mutual understanding of work practices and capabilities, which is making it easier to coordinate projects in a timely manner. Our ability to use Scanigo effectively for data-mining also increased as did our ability to train more volunteers to use it. Additionally, our processes for publishing reports on various platforms has become more streamlined.
Key Lessons Learned:
- A Workbook should be used for larger activations to better organize projects and scheduling and provide links and briefs in one place.
- Volunteers should receive proper instructions and training, especially regarding formatting of reports.
- One or more volunteers should be focused on formatting and reporting so researchers have more time to focus on their work.
- In future large scale disaster responses, we should consider publishing one map every 24-48 hours to show incremental knowledge gain rather than one map illustrating a week of data.
- Databases of research findings used for maps should be published because they can contain critical first assessment material and is an additional annex to different maps.
We would like to thank all of our partners and volunteers for their participation and collaboration in the response effort and for their continued commitment to helping people impacted by disasters.