When You Just Know What the Next Disaster Will Be

From the title of this post, some people might immediately think of intuition: that vague and rather flaky resource used when that’s all you have. However, we’re actually thinking of something a little more structured in this context. In the coming age of Big Data and associated worldwide online resources, analytical techniques like those used in business intelligence can be used to detect trends and tipping points. They can give individuals and organisations meaningful information about how likely certain disasters will be: for example, ‘there is a 90 percent chance currently that your factory will be flooded out to a depth of eighteen inches of water’.

The use of predictive analytics like this is not new. What is changing the nature of the game however is the increasing availability of large information databases, coupled with ever growing processing power. Instead of relying on limited internal information resources, organisations can now access huge public databases opened up by governments and even some cloud computing providers (Google, for instance). With the right software applications, more data crunched faster can yield better insights into what has happened, what will happen and even which actions to take now in the light of future events.

But if you don’t have your own servers and analytics software, you can always join an online community that uses open-source software to chart disasters as they happen. This activity of ‘crisis mapping’ is exemplified by the Ushahidi software platform. Ushahidi collects information for visualisation and interactive mapping. Primarily built for use by the public, the software has been used in events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake: volunteers mapped tweets and other web information to improve situational awareness. While the software has yet to develop predictive capabilities, its mapping capabilities make it a powerful tool for emergency managers who want to understand in real time how an event is developing.