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Using mobile phone technologies for Disaster Risk Management: Reflections from SHEAR, June 2021

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Introduction

The reach of mobile networks has expanded significantly over the last decade, with approximately 93% of the global population being covered by a mobile broadband network.i Mobile phone ownership has also proliferated rapidly, with global smartphone connections doubling in just five years and rising sixfold in South Asia.ii At the end of 2019, more than 3.7 billion people were connected to mobile internet.iii Increased mobile phone coverage, ownership, and use, has improved communications access to more people and vulnerable communities than ever before. Such access presents new opportunities for reducing risks from disasters.

Disasters related to natural hazards have killed 1.35 million people in the last 20 years, 90% of which were in low-and-middle-income countries.iv Disasters result in severe economic losses, undermining development progress and reinforcing poverty and its impacts on households, communities and countries. The destruction and damage can take decades from which to fully recover. As the effects of climate change become increasingly tangible, vulnerable and hazard-prone communities face growing, complex, and worsening challenges.

In addition to supporting resilience building and response activities, the expansion of mobile coverage, the increase in mobile phone penetration and use, and advancements in mobile enabled technologies provide new opportunities to support Disaster Risk Management (DRM) in emerging economies.

However, mobile phone technologies are not a universal panacea; we must learn and adapt our approaches to enable us to make the most of technologies in an appropriate and inclusive way.

The Science for Humanitarian Emergencies and Resilience (SHEAR) programme supports world-leading research to enhance the quality, availability and use of risk and forecast information. Researchers and practitioners are working with stakeholders to co-produce demand-led, people-centred science and solutions to improve risk assessment, preparedness, early action and resilience to natural hazards.

In October 2020, SHEAR hosted a virtual workshop which explored the use of mobile technologies to support DRM. The workshop brought together approximately 45 members from 20 organisations across the SHEAR Programme and a selection of external experts to share and record their experiences.

Participants included physical and social scientists, public and private researchers, technological developers, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and federal, local, and intergovernmental officials.

The educational and professional backgrounds of these workers was highly varied and included: scientific experts involved in trialling new technologies; experts working more closely with communities in developing countries over long time periods; those involved in the short-term distribution of emergency aid; non-professional participants (“citizen scientists”) in community-level initiatives; and data visualisation and risk communication experts.

The breadth and depth of expertise and experience from workshop participants provided an opportunity to gather key learnings and examine common challenges and opportunities where mobile technologies could be usefully harnessed through different stages of the DRM lifecycle, and across different regions.

This publication summarises the key learnings from the workshop: how mobile phone technologies are used in DRM, and the opportunities and lessons for applied research.