Two-hundred and thirty thousand people killed. One-and-a half million people left homeless. Two-hundred and eighty thousand buildings destroyed. A year after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake on January 12, 2010, in Haiti, the figures are still staggering. In today’s modern age, there is much that we can do to prevent such fallout from natural disasters regardless of location. We, as the international space sector, are already contributing to this prevention, but there is room for significant improvement.

After a disaster strikes, current practice ideally has it that the affected country requests aid from the United Nations, and the International Charter Space and Major Disasters is then activated. Space derived data is collected from organizations that are part of the Charter and this information is sent to other organizations who then produce maps and informational reports on the disaster. These organizations then send their information to the disaster responders and the international community. The United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) tries throughout the process to support the complicated information exchange.

While the principle behind this process is sound, the execution has proven problematic as more systems and organizations are being developed that contribute space-derived data to disaster management. Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security system, the 85-country Group on Earth Observation’s Global Earth Observation System of Systems, various academic institutions, and industry players are just some examples. The problem is that there is not an effective framework in which to integrate them.

Not only does this situation suggest a suboptimal use of resources, but it is also becoming a hindrance to the disaster management process. Disaster response teams, including those in Haiti, have been swamped with too much data from too many organizations from around the world. In Haiti, maps with more colors than a crayon box showed various information like rubble height, population density, water levels, and disease outbreak density. Measurements were conveyed in centimeters, Fahrenheit, bars, feet, cubic tons per square kilometer, Kelvin, Torrs, and acres. In the middle of these disasters, the flood of data with its various formats and conclusions caused user fatigue and confusion. Responders on the ground have reported that they did not even use much of the data because of the overload. Furthermore, this lack of proper coordination meant that some countries received aid that (however well intentioned) was in a form not suited to the disaster, country, and culture at hand. Why make an “an app for that” if there isn’t an iPhone in sight?

While we should be applauding ourselves as a global space community for coming together in times of need, there is much we need to improve upon. So how do we turn this cacophony into music? A meeting that I attended last month, which was hosted by the German Permanent Mission to the UN in Vienna, Austria, inspired some thinking on this topic. Representatives from approximately 20 countries on six continents as well as representatives from the disaster management community convened to discuss how to improve space’s contribution to disaster management. From the meeting, my strong takeaway opinion is that there are some basic steps that we can take that could go a long way. Most importantly, space’s contribution to disaster management needs a simple gap analysis. Where is the system now (how does it work, who are the players, what are their capabilities, etc.)? How do we want the system to be optimally structured? What will it take to get it there? This analysis is key to optimizing our resources — money, people, hardware — of which there are many already in place.

When envisioning and developing our desired state, there are three main issues to consider. First, let’s be sure to create not just a system for today but a scalable framework that will allow for the inclusion of increased numbers and types of organizations. Next, let’s take extra care to ensure that the right organizations are driving the right parts of this data collection and dissemination process. Allow agencies and academia to focus on providing the analyzed data, industry to contribute their market-honed processes and products, and the UN organizations to handle the international dissemination and political angles. Last but not least, let’s determine a conductor to coordinate this effort. That organization should announce data standards, serve as the clearinghouse for the data, and be charged with collecting metrics to measure the effectiveness of the disaster response process from the space sector. Whoever this organization is, whether UN-SPIDER or another organization, let’s work to ensure that it is properly funded to support such a function.

As a global space community, we need to act together to improve our contribution to disaster management. Disasters and their political, economic and security-related repercussions have no borders. We should engage in this improvement project not only because we can help mitigate these repercussions but also because it supports our sector as well. Space applications for disaster management is an excellent example that the public can grasp of how our sector provides value.

With a relatively small additional investment, we can receive significant and relatively quick return. The hardware is in place. The international collaboration is in place. The system just needs adjustment. While many space projects take decades and large sums of money to complete, this one need not and, indeed, should not. It is guaranteed that we will continue to be faced with disasters of the same magnitude seen in 2010. Let’s strive to guarantee that the magnitude of damage is never the same.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the Space Generation Advisory Council.