In the wake of recent devastating hurricanes, floods, wildfires and earthquakes in North America, the Caribbean, Latin America and South Asia, preparing for natural disasters has never been more urgent. Some estimates suggest flooding damage to coastal cities will cost around US$1 trillion per year by 2050. The cost of naturally-caused forest fires - which exceeded $2billion this year and set a new US record - continues to rise.

The human suffering from these emergencies is beyond calculation. Threats to people and property from acts of nature can’t be prevented. Yet, the second-order vulnerabilities they create can be significantly reduced. The “fog of indecision,” is one such vulnerability that results from institutional hesitancy to collaborate and share data in emergency settings. It’s something that can’t continue. Inaction will only contribute to avoidable suffering.

The technologies and systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer very powerful assets for responding to natural disasters. With nearly 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, connected individuals have proven to be one of the most effective and efficient ways of strengthening resilience when disaster strikes. Likewise, social media, drones, satellite imagery and predictive analytics have all been tremendously helpful for coordinating responses and accelerating the recovery of individuals and communities in the aftermath of recent natural disasters.

Damaged homes from Hurricane Maria are shown in this aerial photo over the island of Dominica, September 19, 2017.  Photo taken September 19, 2017.  Courtesy Nigel R. Browne/Caribbean Emergency Management Agency/Regional Security System/Handout via REUTERS
Image: Nigel R. Browne/Caribbean Emergency Management Agency/Regional Security System/Handout via REUTERS

The positive impact of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies is not limited to disaster response and recovery. They can also help better prepare for them. There are a number of ways technology networks could contribute to lowering shared risks, reducing costs, improving agile responsiveness and delivering positive outcomes before disasters strike.

In particular, new types of "break-glass-in-case-of-emergency" public-private data-sharing agreements could address the unique requirements of exigent emergency circumstances to dramatically reduce delays and improve coordination. Poor decisions made from outdated, inaccurate, inaccessible and incomplete data - which contribute to an array of preventable harms - could be significantly reduced.

We need new legally-supported and trustworthy mechanisms that are fit for de-risking the complexities of disasters. Normal rules applied in abnormal emergency situations can often just make things worse.

One familiar type of rule-setting agreement with great potential to strengthen coordination and reduce information uncertainties (before, during and after disasters strike) is the “escrow” agreement. While the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (cloud-services, geospatial imagery, mobile phones and digital platforms) are now indispensable, the rules governing how they can be most effectively used for natural disasters remains underdeveloped. A “Community Distributed Data Escrow” (CDDE) could be a new way to prepare for the next natural disaster.

But what exactly is a distributed data escrow? Before a disaster happens, a community of public, private, NGO and local community stakeholders would identify a set of typically-unshared knowledge assets (such as maps, status reports, equipment inventories, registries and even personal information with data-subject consent) that they agree would be shared in a pre-structured way - but only in the event that objective disaster indicators (such as specific flood levels, wind speeds, or Richter scale thresholds) reached pre-specified levels. When these collectively-defined “trigger” measurements occur, pre-defined data sets, APIs and data transfers would spring into action, animating stakeholders with specific rights and responsibilities, which would be used to create accurate and timely knowledge assets.

From a trust and accountability perspective, the permitted uses of these shared knowledge assets would be predefined in this new type of escrow and be based on the principles of openness, transparency, fairness and accountability. The oversight over who, how, where and when knowledge assets could be used (and when the rights and duties would cease) would be agreed to in advance of crisis situations. Technically, data wouldn’t need to move or flow across borders or entity perimeters, as it could be queried or accessed via secure API’s. Legally, stakeholder duties spring into action (and cease) based on precisely defined trigger events that are compliant with local laws and regulations. For affected communities and individuals, the distributed data escrow agreement would be vetted to gain meaningful consent from individuals to ensure their rights and duties (as both data producers and consumers) were understood and supported.

A destroyed house is pictured following Hurricane Irma in Ramrod Key, Florida, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RC1420FEBB80
A destroyed house is pictured following Hurricane Irma in Ramrod Key, Florida, U.S., September 20, 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

This innovative approach for improving how we prepare for disasters is not a pipe dream. Some of the foundational attributes are already being applied within the insurance industry. For example, many of the Caribbean countries recently affected by hurricane Irma and the earthquake in Mexico have introduced insurance that is structured to accelerate the recovery process.

Make no mistake. Establishing trustworthy public-private data flows for disaster preparedness will be challenging in practice. An entangled set of technical, privacy, market, regulatory, competitive and operational risks all constrain the use of commercial and governmental data in atypical contexts. A community of committed practitioners is needed to start prototyping these agreements now. Those actors are now collaborating with the World Economic Forum and have the intent to pilot these approaches in real-world settings.

In particular, the following need to be prioritized:

  • Before disasters strike, leverage open, transparent and human-centered processes to identify areas where access to data can convert shared risks into better-informed, coordinated action
  • Agree on common technical specifications and performance levels of digital infrastructure to enhance the integrity, reliability, and accuracy of disaster preparedness systems.
  • Create hybrid “tools and rules” trust frameworks to address the complexities of natural disasters. These distributed systems can enhance resilience, community and trust to drive positive shared outcomes.

The need for faster response times, deeper understandings of complex situations and the ability to address human suffering with greater leverage of scarce resources is only going to increase. Community-based, distributed data escrows are a means to those ends. Improving our agility and responsiveness to the increasing number and severity of natural disasters is not optional – it is a matter of survival and resilience. We need to get to work on how we might innovate to use the data, insight and knowledge generated from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to prepare for natural disasters. Establishing open and transparent “break glass in case of emergency” multilateral agreements would be an important step in that direction.