Tech for Climate Disasters: Getting the Right Tech in the Right Hands at the Right Time

Technology Policy Tech for Development Net Zero

Tech for Climate Disasters: Getting the Right Tech in the Right Hands at the Right Time

Commentary
Posted on: 4th February 2022
Sabahat Iqbal
Senior Policy Analyst, Tech for Development Policy Unit

On 25 January 2022, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change convened a closed-door roundtable with a range of tech companies on the role of technology in reducing the impacts of climate shocks in low- and middle-income countries. The event followed the publication of a roadmap and an in-depth series of policy papers that set out recommendations for policymakers and donors looking to use, access, or finance emerging technologies in their disaster risk management systems.

The roundtable kicked off with brief presentations from Patricia Nying'uro, Principal Meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, and Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. They presented on the effects of climate change in their countries and how technology can minimize these impacts. This set the stage for the discussion that followed between senior technology professionals with extensive experience deploying tech-enabled disaster risk management solutions around the world. We have identified seven key takeaways on opportunities and challenges for applying technology to reduce the impacts of climate change in the most vulnerable countries. 

The collection and analysis of climate and weather data, as well as population movements, is fundamental to knowing where and when a disaster will strike and who will be affected. Without data, there simply are no tech-enabled solutions. From making predictions about weather events to building situational awareness in the aftermath of a climate shock, data forms the foundation of any tech-enabled solution. Three key problems arise, however, in using data effectively for disaster risk management:

Data collection is a formidable task and too many countries are not equipped for it. Data must be collected to track hazards, such as hurricanes, but to minimize loss of lives and livelihoods, data must also be collected on built infrastructure – including informal settlements – and on the vulnerability of communities in the path of a hazard. The effort required to capture this breadth and depth of the data highlights many hurdles, such as poor rural connectivity, that countries must overcome for truly effective data-driven solutions.   

Some of the most useful data is considered proprietary and therefore out of reach. Participants urged policymakers to think creatively about how to ensure data is shared for the public good; one option would be to include data sharing rules in the licenses granted to large tech companies before they are allowed to operate in country. Stakeholders need to work together to navigate a path that encourages competition while enabling the public good – but a balance is possible.

Making data more accessible and usable is critical. If climate and weather data does not reach the right people at the right time – and most importantly – in the right format, it is all but useless. The importance of capacity building and building technical expertise – and ensuring that expertise survives changes in government – was stressed. Beyond that, one participant urged fellow tech providers to simplify their tools bringing up the example of Google’s search tool: users are not expected to download their own version of the search data to then sift through but are presented with accessible and usable search results. Tech-enabled disaster risk management tools should be just as easy to use.

Participants also discussed the importance of the context in which tech-enabled solutions are deployed. Key insights included:

Buy-in from influential stakeholders – including at the local level – is one of the most crucial aspects of deploying technology-enabled solutions. Repeatedly, we heard from almost all the participants that local champions are needed to stimulate demand and promote tech-enabled solutions. One participant mentioned that without local, on-the-ground representation her company would not be able to deploy in many countries. Sustained political will motivated by a sense of urgency from policymakers, civil society and the general population are also key to any initiative to develop tech-enabled solutions.

Technology-enabled solutions are only part of the solution. Technology-enabled solutions that seek to minimize the impact of climate shocks should be embedded in a disaster management environment that incorporates non-tech based and indigenous approaches that can prevent a climate shock from becoming a disaster in the first place. An example that was offered was allowing animals to graze on lands that might otherwise become tinder for wildfires. In addition, developing and using a technology simply for its own sake will not lead to more effective disaster risk management. Rather, leaders must identify what outcomes they would like to change and how they will act differently when presented with more risk- and data-informed decision points. Tech-enabled solutions cannot be a band-aid fix for socio-economic problems, such as poor or marginalized communities forced to live in climate vulnerable areas.    

Technology-enabled solutions must be user-centred. If the behaviour of end-users seems counter-intuitive to those building tech-enabled solutions, the onus should be on tech providers to investigate and better understand the reasons for this gap. Tools and solutions cannot be developed thousands of miles away from the problem; rather, tech companies must ensure that products are needs based and user-centred to ensure solutions are accessible and meet needs on the ground. Similarly, how tech-based solutions, including early warnings messages are delivered to target audiences is crucial. Messengers play a key role in building trust in tech-enabled solutions, and the right messages delivered by the right people goes a long way in behaviour change.

Investors must be educated about the opportunities to minimize impact of climate shocks. There is a currently a disconnect between what funders greenlight and what is needed by end users in low- and middle-income countries. One participant suggested that if mPesa, for example, never existed, investors would be trying to copy-and-paste the smartphone-based model for fintech apps over from developed countries. There must be a mind-shift in the product development process by developing products and solutions closer to the end-user communities. One participant expressed frustration at the mismatch in funding and investment opportunities in relation to his company’s ability and willingness to deploy in developing countries.   

The event concluded with a reminder from one participant that a lot of these discussions are unfortunately not new. However, technology – and the way it is developed and deployed – has evolved, shifting the pressure to those of us who see the opportunities in tech-enabled solutions to think more openly and more creatively. We finally have more tools than ever before; it only requires us – tech providers, donors, governments – to take the appropriate actions for the sake of lives and livelihoods.

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