How should we approach technological innovation in disaster management?

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How should we approach technological innovation in disaster management?

September 05, 2020 | Blog | By Author 9

Photo: (From left to right) Ester Margaretha (Saraswati), Agus Wibowo (BNPB), Puji Pujiono (Pujiono Center) and Nashin Mahtani ( at the Australian Embassy’s Big Ideas event

Technological innovation in humanitarian assistance offers many promises but also provokes scepticism regarding applicability and sustainability. For many humanitarian actors, innovation is merely a buzzword. For others, it offers inspiration for ideation towards better practices and prototypes.

To what extent could technological innovation leverage people and resources to improve disaster management? Is a focus on innovation a mere distraction to resolving critical problems? Does it promote experimentation just for the sake of doing things differently (and donor curiosity)? Or are we lacking innovation in this sector?

To explore this topic further, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta hosted a “Big Ideas” event entitled Disaster-Prone and Tech-Savvy: Technology and Humanitarian Action on 30 January. While there are many aspects of this that could be explored—from social media to artificial intelligence and blockchain—speakers represented three approaches: crowdsourcing and geospatial intelligence (PetaBencana); government-employed platforms, such as a multi-hazard early warning system ‘ínaRISK’ (the National Disaster Management Agency, BNPB); and the urgency and feasibility of data innovation in support of disaster management (Saraswati). The discussion was stimulating. Here is a summary of my main talking points and some key takeaways.

1.    Innovation begins with the root of the problem and "how might we” better address this

Central Sulawesi Reflection Exercise at the Australian Embassy (04/19). Participants draw their user journeys, as part of a Design Sprint

Ideation in innovation starts with a clear understanding of what problem lies ahead to generate the fittest solution given the context. This should be an iterative process, facilitated by the mindset to think critically and strategically, to explore a variety of thinking and processes, to keep challenging the status quo, and the quest to make things more effective and efficient. One pitfall of innovation relates to our own assumptions and the ego of decision makers that compromises exploration and development of something new—whether it is an app, online platform, or system.

In May 2019, Saraswati conducted a Reflection Exercise through applying Human-Centered Design to gain insights from over fifty Indonesian and international stakeholders. Through the process, data analysis management emerged as a significant challenge faced by DFAT and its implementing partners in disaster management. In particular, there are three main areas, each posing its own challenges: data reliability, data accessibility, and data utilisation.

This fully reflects my previous experience in Central Sulawesi following the 2018 earthquake there. While Rapid Needs Assessments (RNAs) conducted by non-government agencies are indeed most valuable during the early stage of the disaster to estimate impact, the sampling and surveying are not sufficient to fully address actions taken (or to be taken). Therefore, NGOs tend to rely heavily upon secondary quality data provided by the government. However, there are discrepancies and inconsistencies in data across the government as well as the absence of sex-age-disability disaggregated data (SADDD) of those who are affected. Furthermore, there is also a lack of data analysis and summaries with too much raw data and the absence of integrated data and information management, resulting in overlaps as well as gaps in interventions across humanitarian sectors. And so how might we improve current data to become more reliable and accessible, and, therefore, support organisational decision-making processes before, during and after disasters? 

2.   To be innovative does not require the use of advanced technology

Business and Community Resilience: Co-Creation Challenge and High-Level Conference by Business Sweden et al. (10/19)

Innovation is not always about using the latest technology. Technology is a mere instrument, a transformative tool to alter the business process of humanitarian action. It is never the sole solution—and often low tech can be the right tech. 

Certainly, technology plays a role in data sources and processing software that provides data analytics, consolidation of data sets in the form of a comprehensive and user-friendly dashboard that can better inform where and when aid is needed the most. Nevertheless, it doesn't necessarily mean we have to build something new or explore new software. Should there be any new system, app, or platform developed, users must be at the heart of an iterative design process.

For the case of data, technology can greatly facilitate data-driven decision making or data preparedness. However, the pain points are more on resource capacity and analytical skills as well as on policy-makers’ willingness to have decision making guided by data analytics. Data and information management needs skilled resources and operational strategies to manage data collection and analysis based on contextual needs. It is also critical to engage the existing innovation ecosystem to identify and bring actors, including private companies, with relevant and complementary skills as well as the resources and incentives to act. These will improve reliability, timeliness, relevance, inclusiveness and accountability of data and information management.

3. Innovation doesn't have to be disruptive (but it has to be relevant) 

he landing page of, the 5W Dashboard Mapping initiated and supported by Save The Children Indonesia that will be transferred to the BNPB Site.

Sometimes we only need a little tweaking to the process in order to transform the result. Incremental innovation focuses on an existing system, platform, process, or method whose performance is enhanced or upgraded. For instance, we might only need to optimise the tools and functions in the current data response coordination platform to add the dashboard, shift to a cloud-based spreadsheet with offline access for frictionless collaboration and data integration, or simply add hashtags to data categorisation and harmonisation. These do not require a significant change in practice or a new app, but rather incremental innovation to transform data into information with valuable insights, and more effective and strategic coordination that scales down the overlaps.

This is part of our key recommendations to explore information and data management and analytics. For Saraswati's part, we will soon be conducting a needs analysis on Harnessing Data to Support Disaster Management in Indonesia that aims to identify challenges in quality data collection and effective data coordination—in particular to improve the Indonesian government’s decision making in events of disaster. We hope the research will provide a comprehensive understanding of the current gaps and aspects of humanitarian response that could benefit most from better use of data, as well as strategic mapping to push recommendations forward.

Big ideas should not stay as merely big ideas. If you believe in a big idea, opt-in, incentivise relevant people and resources, challenge your own assumptions and keep iterating—too many “innovations” languish at the prototype stage. And if you are tempted to dabble in tech or data, do not ignore important privacy, security and accessibility considerations. If you want to discuss further, drop me a line!


Ester Margaretha is Project Manager at Saraswati. She leads the implementation of an innovative and private-sector funded plastic-free communities initiative, development of a web- and Android-based Innovation and Knowledge Hub (iHub) for the USAID MADANI project to support CSO capacity and competencies, and the upcoming needs analysis on data for disaster management with DFAT and Palladium.