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Volume 26, No. 1

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October  / November 1999



The Global Disaster Information Network

by Larry Winter Roeder

Each year, on average, disasters worldwide kill more than 133,000 people, leave more than 140 million homeless and cause tens of billions of dollars' worth of property damage. The 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake caused over $40 billion in damage. Hurricane Mitch has cost over $4 billion. This summer the floods from the heaviest monsoon rains in Southeast Asia in three decades threatened the livelihood of over half a million in Cambodia. The death toll in the recent earthquake in Turkey may reach 40,000. In late August 33,000 people were injured and more than 200,000 were left homeless. No region is safe.

Natural disasters are truly a global problem, resulting in widespread human suffering, financial loss and political instability. And disasters in other countries hurt us. The destruction of a Coca-Cola Company plant in South Africa harms the bottom line in Atlanta. It also hurts the international insurance industry. Thus, reducing disaster losses should be a fundamental goal of all sectors of society. An efficient method for sharing disaster management information is key to ameliorating the problem. Moreover, the information must reach the right people at the right time and in the right format so that the right decisions can be made. Finding ways of doing that task on a global scale is the main focus of my job at the Department of State.

Disaster Information and the Internet

Many people argue that the Internet has all the information needed to reduce the impact of natural disasters. All one has to do is post data to the Net, and disaster managers will download and use the data. But it isn't that simple – especially when one looks at the millions of Web sites and their frequent duplication. Another common mistake in the information age is to extrapolate from the Internet's size and claim that there is too much information about disasters. The issue really isn't size; the issue is management. The availability of relevant information is not uniform. In fact, except for areas of major commercial or political importance, there is too often a severe information shortage.

Frequently, too, while the information may be accurate and useful to one type of disaster manager, its format may be of little value to another expert fighting the same sort of emergency. In other words, the same kind of data collected by different agencies often can't be merged. Finally, while wealthy cities or countries might invest millions in information systems, poorer communities don't have that capacity. These issues must be addressed if we are to have effective disaster mitigation, preparedness and response. They need urgent attention. Having said that, the prospects for success are promising. As we enter the last months of the 20th century, more information about disasters and hazards is being produced than ever before. The telecommunications industry has progressed far beyond where it was even five years ago. There have also been major improvements in the quality of data from satellites and ground-based instrument networks. And costs are coming down. A satellite can cost over $100 million; but imagine a solar-powered airplane that costs only $5 million flying 24 hours-a-day for months at a time over volcanoes and flood zones. NASA and Aerovironment of California may have such a plane by 2001.

The new millennium provides us opportunities and innovations we should and must take advantage of. These innovations have supplemented more traditional methods of data collection. It is now possible to predict major natural events (such as the 1997-1998 El Niño) much earlier and forecast their impacts. Moreover, the ability to deliver information to users is expanding rapidly, which might save lives in Iowa and Rwanda. The Internet continues to grow exponentially, new communications satellites provide opportunities to exchange electronic mail and telephone service in remote parts of the globe and new ways are being developed to broadcast warnings and information from satellites, solar-powered planes and local transmitters.

Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN)

An emerging partnership called Global Disaster Information Network (GDIN) may become a powerful tool for solving the problem of efficient sharing of disaster information. The United States has been developing GDIN for several years in a partnership between government and private agencies. Conferences to develop an international partnership of benefit to both the world and the United States have also begun. The first was held in Washington, DC, last year and the second in Mexico City this summer. The response by the international community is enthusiastic. Collaborators include world renowned experts like Dr. James Baker, Administrator of NOAA; Dr. Juan Carlos Belausteguigoitia Rius, Deputy Secretary of Planning, Mexican Ministry of Environment, who managed the Mexico City Conference; Sergio DeMello, Emergency Relief Coordinator for the United Nations; Dr. Oktay Ergunay, General Director of Disaster Affairs, Turkey; and Jonathan Abrahams of Disaster Management, Australia. The Office of Policy Planning, Public and Congressional Relations in the International Organizations Bureau of the State Department manages the international side of GDIN as part of an interagency team.

So what is the idea behind GDIN, and what makes it different? GDIN intends to exploit the potential of recent technological developments to help reduce disaster losses as part of an internationally coordinated plan that benefits not just the United States, but all nations, rich and poor. The challenge is to get information about hazards in the right format to the right people on time so that disasters can be mitigated and response can be swift and sure. Despite some recent success stories, today's information systems can't always promise speed. In December 1996, a United Nations agency asked the United States to provide urgently needed information – including overhead imagery on a volcano that had just erupted in eastern Zaire, in order to help plan for the possible evacuation of refugees in the area. One day after the request was received the Department of State was fortunately able to deliver a simple computer-generated map to the region showing the volcano's active vents and lava flows. Using this and other tools, the UN agency was quickly able to determine the high-risk areas. What might have happened had an imagery source not been located? Would the UN agency have been in a position to call on others with a satellite in the vicinity? Perhaps there might have been another one, but perhaps not. Meanwhile, the fate of refugees would have remained uncertain. The "what if" side of this episode serves to illustrate a shortcoming that many natural disaster planners and managers have come to recognize. There is an absence of any sure, systematized means whereby governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with natural disasters can have prompt access to any available relevant information or can request that information be generated in specialized formats.

To be sure, many governments, international organizations and other entities are already in a position to supply disaster information upon request on an ad hoc basis. And many do post reliable information on the Internet all the time. What is needed is a more comprehensive, systematized approach. The concept of a GDIN flows from these perceived needs and from the growing potential of systems such as the Internet to deliver accurate information rapidly throughout much of the globe.

GDIN's Primary Objective

GDIN's objective is to improve the effectiveness and interoperability of information systems for sharing natural disaster information, especially maps and data generated by remote and land-based sensors that would generally be made accessible to all governments, international organizations, NGOs and any other entities or individuals coping with disasters. Such improvement means promoting availability of information from all sources in a timely manner. Such information would be constantly posted to the Internet, lowering the cost of disaster information to users, providing better early warning of natural disasters and promoting more informed and effective preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Ancillary benefits could be a reduction in the substantial amounts (running into the hundreds of million dollars annually) now spent on international relief and an improvement in the political and economic stability of nations subjected to severe natural disasters. A GDIN could promote more effective collaboration among providers, disseminators and users of disaster information.

Of course, the guiding principle of GDIN should be to complement, not supplant, existing networks for sharing disaster information such as ReliefWeb, the UN's premier disaster Web site, at


and bilateral and multilateral arrangements. There are thousands of centers of expertise that currently publish disaster information via the Internet such as the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance in Honolulu


The issue at hand is how to link such networks more effectively, taking advantage of new technologies that are now available or may shortly be developed, and providing the users with the right information in the right formats at the right time. That is the easy part.

One of the major challenges of GDIN today is to provide specific services for those without access to the Internet and those who need specialized disaster-related information. More specifically, the primary functions of a Global Disaster Information Network could be first to enable disaster managers, relief workers and others to access systematically existing information in a timely way. It could also allow them to integrate rapidly in situ and remote sensing data, maps, situation reports and other data that are pertinent to their specific needs. Second, it needs to serve as a mechanism whereby, in the absence of sufficient relevant available information, disaster managers and relief workers can promptly communicate with reliable sources (e.g., governments, international organizations) to request the needed information in a usable form.

GDIN Secondary Objectives and Benefits

A GDIN could also serve a number of secondary objectives in the field of emergency information management, among them to foster increased sharing of disaster information among governments, international organizations, NGOs and other entities. Such encouragement is essential, in fact, as is the need to promote standardization, integration and compatibility of different kinds of disaster information. GDIN must link on existing systems and networks and improve the interoperability of relevant technical databases.

For example, a search engine could be developed that would immediately give a user of disaster information a prioritized list of links to Web pages that contain the specific information he/she needs. The design and implementation of such a search engine would involve a thorough understanding of user needs and of the relevant information that is globally available. A database of experts might also be deployed.

We also need to work together to develop non-coercive incentives for disaster prone countries and regions that have poor communications facilities to upgrade them so as to be in a position to receive alerts or request information in a timely manner. It would also encourage greater interaction and collaboration among providers, disseminators and users of disaster information through electronic and other means. Integration also requires standards.

To this end GDIN should develop standards-based interoperability that makes such integration feasible. In fact, GDIN has established a Working Group aimed at doing that. It will not be easy to standardize and harmonize information. But GDIN must seek consensus for standards for all types of data to include geospatial data and data in tables and images. In all cases such standards should leverage existing efforts and promote broad interoperability. GDIN should develop policies that ensure the efficient flow of critical information from classified or proprietary sources to users with appropriate needs to know. And the information must be in formats that allow complex information to be understandable to those who need to make decisions based on it.

Turkish experts, for example, have proposed using GDIN to develop maps understandable by uneducated municipal leaders in poor, flood-prone regions of that country. These maps would be tools used to help those leaders make informed decisions about the placement of houses and villages.

GDIN Access

One issue that must be reiterated is that there will always be users of disaster information without ready access to the Internet or who may need assistance in securing relevant, reliable information from it. GDIN can't simply be a virtual network of partners linked loosely by goodwill. It must make allowance for facilitating agencies to provide such assistance on a voluntary basis, either directing users to known reliable sources of information or accessing the information on their behalf and formatting it to be readily useable on an urgent basis. Such agencies could be existing regional disaster preparedness centers or ones that might be created.


Again, natural disasters define a global problem. We cannot control them, but we can reduce their damage by working together in new, creative ways that use new tools to share information in a timely, integrated and coherent manner. Anyone with a professional interest in natural disasters is invited to participate in GDIN. The next GDIN Conference will be April 26-28, 2000, at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Final decisions on how GDIN will be operated and funded will be made at the Ankara conference and at a follow-up conference hosted by Disaster Management, Australia in Canberra. The Web site for the Ankara conference is http://www.deprem.gov.tr/gdin2k/index.html.

Larry Winter Roeder, Jr., is Senior Policy Advisor and National Facilitator for the Tampere Convention of the International Emergency Information Program. He can be reached by mail at the Bureau of International Organizations, IO/PPC Room 4334a, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC 20520; by telephone at 202/647-5070; by fax at 202/647-9722; or by e-mail at lroeder@hotmail.com. The organization's Web site can be found at www.state.gov/www/issues/relief/index.html




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@ 1999, American Society for Information Science