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Disaster Response Applications: New Lessons From The Fall of Kabul and Severe Weather Events

Source:  This mobile app is helping Afghans navigate Kabul following the Taliban takeover – CNN

If you have been through a severe weather event or a political catastrophe complete with infrastructure disruption and violence, you learn very quickly that it is not the precipitating event, but the success or failure of the disaster response (the aftermath) that is the real source of human suffering, further calamities, a rising death toll, escalating political unrest, and violence.

Time – specifically, the aftermath defined as the duration of the disaster and resulting crisis conditions – is a crucial element too. In the case of hurricanes, flash floods, or earthquakes, the first signs of stability usually map to the restoration of power. For fire victims, it is even worse, as there may be no ‘home’ to which electricity needs to be restored. For them, fleeting stability needs to be achieved by finding short-term shelter. For a city, state, and federal crisis management team, it may be a positive update on critical infrastructure that may be downed or damaged, causing reason for concern (gas line leaks, explosions, etc.). For businesses, supply chain disruptions are one of many variables at work when stabilizing operations after a disaster of any form.

We are entering an era when on-the-ground conditions and real-time disaster-level information flows grow in their value to individuals, families, communities, businesses, and governments who need access to a variety of information channels in the aftermath of more frequent and mounting disaster conditions. Increasingly, for governments, disaster response has become so frequent it has the potential to become the central organizing principle of governance. For businesses, uncertainty and disruption stand the chance of moving from a strategic function to a core operations function.

In the case of political instability, either for the individual or a company tracking the welfare of employees halfway around the world, a sense of stability corresponds to achieving short-term bouts of safety – so as determine further situational awareness to inform next steps. Long-term, uninterrupted safety is the final goal. In this scenario, information is a fleeting, valuable commodity with close to zero market conditions or infrastructure with which to determine its value quickly  – and optimize widespread distribution if the information has mission-critical value.

Is there a wave of democratization of access to tools and/or product commercialization ahead in this space?  It is to be seen if necessity is the mother of invention in the creation of an innovative disaster safety marketplace. For now, the following are some current signals and use cases from recent events.

The Fall of Kabul and Finding Safety with Ehtesab App


A market in Kabul, Afghanistan (Source: CNN.com)

“The main problem I have is: How can I keep my team safe?”

As we first mentioned in the OODA Loop Daily Pulse earlier this month, Ehtesab is an Afghani company founded three years ago to foster change and enhance civic engagement. The design of their eponymously named app is a multi-sided platform for local community building and creating a dialogue between neighbors. As 26-year-old Ehtesab founder Sara Wahedi notes in the video interview at the top of this post, “We started this initiative with one mission… how do we keep Afghan citizens informed engaged and also at the same time keeping those who are meant to serve them accountable.” The app was originally designed to target parliament members in the Afghan parliament to increase the community awareness of their activities, increasing their accountability directly to the citizens themselves through the multi-sided software application.

Many crowdsourcing platforms have values intrinsic to their architecture and design, such that user activity eventually presents as a source of value separate from the designer’s initial intent. Startups then pivot their business model, re-aligning their entire operation for scalable value creation. Such is the case with Ehtesab once the app was in use during and after the fall of Kabul. Wahedi adds: “This app was not meant to respond to a fall of a country, but that is the situation we have been presented.”

Wahedi survived multiple suicide bombs when walking home from work in downtown Kabul in 2018 and it left her contemplating the aftermath: problems with sanitation, street closures, and outages of electricity. Again, from the CNN interview: “I was really confused by the fact that there was no platform … where you could find verified, real-time information about what was going on in the city, especially a city which is consistently reeling with instability,” Wahedi said. “It just seemed so odd to me that there was no structure.”

CNN Business reports: “Now this service has taken on new urgency amid the rapid political and social change following the Taliban’s takeover. While the app has been downloaded only 5,000 times by people in Kabul and elsewhere — a tiny portion of the city’s millions of residents — the company says usage has surged in recent weeks.”

“The main focus has been, obviously, providing reports that affect Afghans’ access to food, access to banks, access to movement,” Sara Wahedi told CNN Business. “We try to mitigate as much anxiety in day-to-day life as best as we can in the current situation,” she said. “The main problem I have is: How can I keep my team safe?”

Another platform, Citizen, a U.S. public safety app with marketing taglines such as “connect and stay safe” and “where people protect each other,” is designed for sending real-time crime and safety alerts. Citizen has recently launched a private security app – Protect, with the marketing tagline “welcome to the future of personal safety” – which makes Citizen a multi-sided platform with the ability to call for help in the case of an emergency. Both Citizen and Protect are not without their controversy.

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For the business executive or public safety official concerned with disaster and emergency management, the lesson right now is that solutions can and should be found anywhere – In Kabul, Afghanistan, or in another vertical industry  – grappling with the future role of technology-enabled decision-making support tools for disaster, crisis, and emergency management.

Of course, start by determining use cases for the future of real-time decision-making and support in your industry vertical or public sector space.  But stay really nimble and open to innovative ideas.

Next, create sensemaking capabilities within your organization for the evaluation of solutions in far-flung locations,  disciplines, domains, and industry verticals that manage disasters and emergencies with finite decision-making time windows.  Productization of decision-making and situational awareness tools based on multi-sided, crowdsourced platforms is no longer on the horizon, but clearly available for assessment and technology implementation now.

For a related discussion on innovation in decision-making and situational awareness for disaster and emergency management and public safety, see OODA Loop – AI-Based Ambient Intelligence Innovation in Healthcare and the Future of Public Safety.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.