Disaster data is a disaster, but not for long (part 3)

A conversation with Julio Serje – UNISDR data scientist

Part 3 of 4

Whitespace: That dovetails into the topic of the Sendai Framework, and how people are organizing worldwide around that. Maybe you could give us an overview? Which institutions are involved and what are the aims of the framework?

Julio Serje: The framework is a relatively simple document. It provides recommendations to governments and practitioners – in other words, the people that are doing planning development, public investment, disaster management and so on. The framework is organized in four areas of action and is based on three decades of previous work measuring the tools and activities that are the most profitable, so to say, in terms of risk reduction.

First thing that you have to do is to know about your hazards, your vulnerabilities, your exposure (the risk) so you can act accordingly. The other three priorities are organized around actions that governments can do – how countries can organize internally so that this knowledge feeds development plans, risk reduction plans, and so on.

One priority is about why and how countries should invest in risk, and how public investment could be better guided so that it doesn’t create new risk.

Then there’s also a priority on how countries should prepare for disasters because things will still happen. A lot of measures that can be put in place, such as early warning systems and community networks. Which is connected with resilience and how communities will rebound after these hazardous events hit. It is about considering the whole cycle around the occurrence of disasters; how do you reduce your risk, are you prepared, and how do you rebound afterward. The framework address all these things.

Whitespace: So there’s hope.

Julio Serje: Indeed, there are signs that show us that things are getting better. Risk reduction is very effective. Earlier I mentioned the example of the cyclone in India. Let’s consider the recent earthquake in Mexico – it was really really bad, I know, with over 200 fatalities; I don’t know the precise number – but the same earthquake, 40 years ago with a lot less people around, would have killed thousands.

You can see that there’s progress in many areas. We have looked into the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, and for countries that lie in the hurricane zone of the world, the likelihood of being killed by a hurricane is today less than half it was a decade ago or two decades ago. The risk of mortality has been very much addressed by these measures.

We have been very successful with early warning systems, prediction systems, shelter systems, and so on. This is partly why mortality is dropping. The challenge we face is that, while you can get yourself to a shelter, you cannot bring your livestock, you cannot take your crops, your house will still be exposed. So economic losses are still the fastest growing impact of disasters. There’s increasing pressure to start looking into this in an integrated manner, together with the whole set of mortality prevention actions.

Whitespace: The framework covers some of that, does it not? You mentioned that there’s a whole data collection and reporting aspect to the Sendai Framework that will help us measure economic loss alongside human loss.

Julio Serje: Yes. This is related to what I was saying about priority number one, which is understanding risk and understanding the impact. Understanding how risks and how disasters are impacting our world is a very important thing because this knowledge will allow us to act in a sensible manner.



Whitespace: In other words, you can’t act without measuring. Is that what you’re saying?

Julio Serje: Exactly. But most importantly, how and where do you act on this information? The information about losses is extremely important because in addition to helping you understand hazards and risks and vulnerabilities and so on, it is also eventually providing the justification – the political imperative – for investments.

A typical example of this is we’ve been developing something called cost-benefit analysis for investing in risk. It’s essentially the business case of disaster risk reduction. For example, you say, “Okay, I’m going to build a flood protection mechanism that costs $200 million.” How do you justify this? On one hand, yes, it will help you reduce mortality.

This is a gray area where there’s a very big political cause. But if you can make the economic case, you can convince politicians to act in their own interest. How much are current losses? By how much will these losses be cut in the future? How much is our government investing every year in cleaning up from emergencies, rebuilding, etc. As the Secretary General would say, for the countries being flattened, how much does it cost the government and how much will these investments reduce that cost? With this information, you can make an economic case for disaster prevention. It is very interesting to see how information on risk and losses is the only way to support this analysis, which is actually the only way to justify the investments.

Whitespace: In some countries, how difficult is it to collect the raw data in the first place?

Julio Serje: It’s very difficult for many reasons. One is that disaster data is a disaster, because it is collected under very harsh circumstances without having the best communication. It is collected by people who are not necessarily savvy about data processing; it’s collected by firefighters, emergency managers, people that are doing search and rescue. The information collected is not absolutely precise, and in many countries, it is still a very approximate evaluation.

That being said, more and more countries, practitioners and emergency services are seeing the need to get out, harvest, and store this data. The quality of data is improving. The hope is that all of this data collected in the little village where a landslide happened makes its way through the chain of communication and is loaded into a national disaster management database. After that it will ultimately come to our central repository of data at UNISDR. That is something that we’ve been working on for years; going country by country and preaching the value of data collection.


Disaster data is a disaster. That being said, more and more countries, practitioners and emergency services are seeing the need to get out, harvest, and store this data. The quality of data is improving. (Julio Serje)


Whitespace: What progress have you made?

Julio Serje: The case for loss data is very interesting because we started collecting this data 20 years ago. It started as a small initiative in Latin America and was adopted by the UN 3 years later. Today we have data from almost 100 countries. That data has fed the the discussions around the Sendai Framework. The data has enabled us to talk about extensive risks. The knowledge that this data has generated has permeated the community.

If you see how the targets and indicators of the Sendai Framework are structured, you can map them almost one-to-one to what we collect in our disaster loss databases. The fact that we have collected this data and have demonstrated its value has made many countries agree, “Okay, we need to make this a mandatory exercise.”

Four out of the seven targets of the Sendai Framework are based on this data because it’s about understanding risk; about seeing if we’re doing well or not; about creating the political justification to continue; about measuring. It goes all around the entire cycle of risk reduction.

Sometimes it can be complex. The complexity of what we want to do now is much higher than the complexity of what we started doing a few years ago. On the one hand, we are asking countries to collect more loss data at the global level. We’re also asking countries to collect information on what they are doing about reducing risk. What we are calling today the Sendai Framework Monitor system, is trying to look at both sides of the coin. It’s looking at the outcomes or the outputs of the process in terms of losses. But it’s also looking at the other side in what countries are doing in order to reduce their risk.

It’s a very interesting and relatively simple concept that translates into a complex system.

You at Whitespace – of all people, you guys know best because you were involved in the development of the prototype. So you know how much effort it took, how difficult it was to conceive of a system that would allow countries to look at both sides of the coin. Based on the prototype that Whitespace designed, phase 1 development of the Sendai Framework Monitor is now complete!



This article is continued in Part 4.
Missed Part 1?