Could Digital Transformation Help the Caribbean become More Resilient to Natural Disasters?

By Camila Mejía Giraldo

Just consider for a second how technology affected our lives in the past two decades. The way we work, the way we interact and communicate, the way we pay bills, the way we access government services, have all been subject to a complete technological overhaul. What if a company or an individual decides not to use the Internet, or the e-mail? A famous quote by Leon Meggison might answer this question.“ It is not the strongest
of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives”, says the management professor “It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. Digital transformation is and will be the constant in our world. How adaptive we are to these changes as a company, as an individual or as a government, how we manage to leverage digital technology to solve some of the main challenges our society is facing will certainly determine our survival in a digital world.

What is “digital transformation”?

Simply put, it is all the changes
 in a society as a result of the implementation of digital technologies. It is a series of profound technological changes in businesses, processes and activities that have a larger impact on the way society operates and organizes itself. Digital transformation ultimately implies leveraging technology to improve our current activities, but most importantly to tackle the problems or challenges that we face as a society.

In 2017, the Caribbean was hit by several deadly and destructive hurricanes that left massive devastation in several islands.

As this episode proved, natural disasters can result in deaths
and cost governments billions
of dollars. According to Moody’s Analytics, hurricanes Harvey and Irma combined cost the US and the Caribbean US$150-200 billion in damages and output lost. As a result, improving resilience to natural disasters has become a major concern for governments in the region.

The question now is how can digital transformation help governments in general, and Caribbean governments in particular, become more resilient to natural disasters?

Technology can play a crucial 
role in the preparedness for natural disasters and the issuing
of early warnings. The use of
 ICT to streamline emergency responses between different territories or government agencies is critical. Several countries have been working to improve
this connectivity and integrate
the ICT tools used by different government agencies in charge
of disaster management. For instance, after the 1999 Marmara Earthquake, Turkey implemented a National Emergency Management Information System across the entire country. This system, together with an Uninterrupted and Secure Communication System, is designed to provide the authorities with a reliable network during disasters and emergency situations. Similarly, Jamaica is currently upgrading its data center to a Tier III and building a Government network connecting all Government agencies across the country through fiber optics, creating a redundant and reliable connectivity network that will help to improve the Government’s response to natural disasters.

A real-time operational picture obtained through different data sources and aimed at making quick decisions in cases of emergency is also an essential aspect of building resilience. Data-driven digital solutions can help tackle and predict natural disasters. In Tanzania, the Dar Ramani Huria Project (Swahili for “Dar Open Map”) improved flood resilience through community mapping. Floods in Tanzania result every year in a large number of deaths and millions of dollars in damages due to lack of planning and informal settlements. The project helps communities map residential areas, roads, streams, floodplains, and other relevant features. This data is then digitized and combined with other data in “InaSAFE”, a free software that enables users to run realistic natural disaster scenarios for better planning. This process would bring disaster prevention and response to areas that were previously off the map.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, mobile and digital technologies proved to have
a critical role in establishing
unique, digital identities. Digital innovation is making registration and identification more efficient, enhancing data sharing across organizations, and helping establish identities that can be verified anytime, anywhere. Citizens who lost their identifying documents in the aftermath of natural disasters may have a hard time crossing international borders, or verifying their eligibility to access a range of services such as cash aid,
food or clothing. Also, digital innovation plays a critical role in the identification of fatal victims. Robust digital identity solutions, already implemented in refugee camps around the world, have proven their utility and convenience to support crisis-affected populations. For instance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia has begun issuing photo-ID cards that can be scanned and verified using a free mobile application called “UNHCR VERIFY-MY.” In countries like India, the country’s identification system Adhaar facilitates such procedures in the case of natural disasters. Adhaar collects and stores biometric data and provides proof of electronic identification in a few seconds. Furthermore, after natural disasters or during extreme weather conditions, online services play a key role in ensuring the continuity of government services and business operations despite the unavailability of physical offices. Estonia, a country well-known for its leadership in the implementation of e-Government, provides 99% of 24/7 online public services. During extreme winters, online services allowed all citizens to have access to government services from the comfort of their own homes. Similarly, during the hurricanes
that affected the American state
of Florida, the ability to maintain a digital storefront helped business owners to recover faster in the aftermath of these disasters. The continuity of digital services is heavily dependent on adequately planning IT physical infrastructure, such as data centers. In order to avoid the loss of data after a natural disaster and to ensure redundancy, countries may need to build several onshore and offshore data centers or they may otherwise need to use cloud services.

Lessons from around the world demonstrate the enormous potential that digital transformation has on improving resilience. Regions like the Caribbean, vulnerable to natural disasters, face the challenge of creating an ecosystem that will accelerate digital transformation in order to prevent, mitigate and improve the responsiveness to natural disasters. Countries like Jamaica are moving ahead rapidly by implementing legal frameworks and physical infrastructure to enable digital transformation through projects such as the new National Identification System. Nevertheless, in the quest for resilience, procuring technology is only one part of the equation. Guaranteeing that both government institutions and citizens are fully equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to leverage digital technology is one of the biggest challenges ahead.


About the author

Camila Mejía Giraldo is a Modernization of the State specialist at the Innovation for Citizen Services division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Her work focuses on the design and implementation of public sector reforms, civil registry, identification, citizen security and justice programs. Prior to this, she has worked in the IDB’s Labor Markets and Social Security division where she worked on the fiscal sustainability of the pension system in Jamaica and in labor market insertion programs for vulnerable populations in the North East of Brazil. Camila also worked in the Development Center of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where she conducted research on informality and gender, pension systems and non-contributory pension schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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