What if technological innovation is the future of early warning systems?

Author(s) Ioana Creitaru - UNDP Beth Allen - UNDP
Man holding a loud speaker for early warning in Bangladesh.
UNDP Bangladesh
Disaster early warning system in Bangladesh - July 2009

This What If…? is the first publication of an exploratory series released throughout the week of this years’ International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction which takes place on 13 October 2022 under the theme of “early warning and early action for all”. Building upon the work of the Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific Horizon Scanning initiative, the series uses foresight to invite consideration of the risks and uncertainties that will impact countries’ abilities to be better prepared for more complex crises and disasters in the region.

“The United Nations will spearhead new action to ensure every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within five years”.

- António Guterres, UN Secretary General

This statement was made by UN Secretary General António Guterres on the event of World Meteorological Day in March 2022. Amid more frequent, extreme, and unpredictable climate-related hazards globally, this indicates the United Nations' mission to invest in early warning and early action for all.

This blog will explore how, in an uncertain world of fast-changing hazards, technological innovation can pave the road to a future where every person is protected by an early warning system. We ask, what if technological innovation is the future of inclusive early warning systems?

Changemakers in action

At UNDP, we are honing in on the importance of cutting edge technologies for developing inclusive early warning systems. Innovations in technology are being explored which can help shape the future of early warning systems.

One such example is in Cambodia, where audio messages are saving lives. Through the UNDP-supported EWS1294 alert service, audio messages have been sent to over 130,000 subscribers to warn them ahead of natural hazards. These alerts give local communities advance warning to prepare their families, homes, and businesses for flooding, boosting their resilience to disasters.

“My commune members came to me to tell me it was such a good thing because they received a warning from the Provincial Committee before the flood arrived! It alerted them to the impending disaster and helped them to prepare.”

- Mrs. Try Teang, Boeng Pruol commune chief

The future is digital

The digital transformation of societies will be imperative if the future of early warning systems lies in technological innovation. While early warning systems using mobile technology, similar to EWS1294 in Cambodia, have  been underway for over a decade now, it will be the more recent acceleration of digital transformation for mobile infrastructures which significantly expands the reach and capabilities of these systems in the future.

The RBAP Horizon Scanning Initiative identified several risks and uncertainties which will impact the digital transformation of mobile infrastructures in Asia Pacific. Mobile penetration rates across the region indicate that 96 percent of the population now have mobile coverage, and a further 430 million 5G connections will have been established by 2025, driving digital growth and technological innovation. Yet there is still a long way to go in reaching the last four percent and ensuring digital connectivity for all, particularly in rural, remote, and other inaccessible geographic areas.

Leaving no one behind

Communication barriers, social and cultural stigma, lack of accessibility of infrastructure, and the absence of effective social safety nets continue to prevent communities, and particularly persons with disabilities, older people, and other at-risk groups from accessing timely early warning and risk information.

Persons with disabilities, who make up about 15% of the world’s population, often face barriers when accessing early warning systems, despite being disproportionately affected by climate-driven hazards and the impacts of disasters. Early warning systems which use SMS to target populations en masse often do not consider the need for multiple formats and features for users with disabilities. For example, a warning via text message may not be accessible for a person with a visual impairment. Therefore, as digital transformation enables SMS warnings to reach more people, innovations in technology should be used to develop tools that are accessible for persons with disabilities and consider the diversity of the population.

Additionally, despite advancements in abolishing gender inequalities in access to technology and communication services, gaps still remain. Studies have shown that the majority of women get warning information through informal social sources within their family or community than through formal sources and thus may miss out on critical information shared through formal warning systems.

People-centered design

For the needs of under-represented and marginalised groups to be adequately met in the early warning systems of our future, it is critical to co-create technological solutions for early warning systems through participatory and inclusive decision-making processes and people-centred design.

One such example of people-centred design in practice sits within the “Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Cambodia” project, which saw the development of a ‘Women’s Charter of Demands’. The charter prioritised gender-barriers to early action such as access to safe areas with adequate resources, access to education and awareness-raising activities, and support for women’s advocacy. This initiative gave women an opportunity to share their experiences and shape their own futures for disaster risk management.

Adopting a people-centred approach to early warning systems will mean the people closest to the problem are included in creating the solutions. By focusing on the user journey, at-risk communities will be able to document the steps they will take in accessing early warnings, identify the barriers they will face, and propose solutions. To embed this practice into technological innovation would create a future where early warning systems are inclusive and leave no one behind.

The future of inclusive early warning systems

There is great potential for technological innovation to serve as the future of early warning systems. Yet, for the future of inclusive early warning systems, countries must engage, listen to, and empower under-represented and marginalised groups. Thus, by utilizing a people-centred design alongside digital transformations and innovations in technology, we can ensure that every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems in the next five years.

Ioana Creitaru is the Global Disaster Preparedness Lead at the Crisis Bureau, UNDP Geneva. She is a development practitioner with over 15 years of experience in crisis prevention, preparedness and recovery in the United Nations System and the non-governmental sector. Ioana holds a PhD degree in Development Studies from the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

Beth Allen is a Preparedness & Early Warning Intern in the Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery for Building Resilience Team at UNDP Geneva.  She is a graduate of Coventry University, with a BSc in Disaster Management and Emergency Planning, and has a background in community risk management in the UK and NZ public sector.

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