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How leveraging technology can aid in decreasing disaster risks

Last week, we had the opportunity to take part in an event sponsored by the United Nations at UN Headquarters in New York City. The fourth annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals – STI Forum – brings together thought leaders from around the world to discuss technology gaps, needs, and capacity-building opportunities that foster solving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs consist of 17 goals that are aimed at making the world a better place by 2030 with a specific lens on poverty, inequality, and climate action.

STI Forum panel participants

We represented our respective organizations in a panel titled, Frontier Technologies to Protect the Environment.

Opening remarks were provided by H.E. Ambassador Juan Sandoval Mendiolea, Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico to the UN. The panel was moderated by Ursula Wynhoven, ITU representative to the United Nations, with presentations from the following thought leaders:

  • Chaesub Lee, Director, Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU
  • Kai Uwe Barani Schmidt, Senior Program Director of the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative (C2G2)
  • David Meltzer, Secretary General of global satellite industry trade association – GVF
  • Melissa Sassi, Startup Program Manager, IBM Z Ecosystem – IBM
  • Paul Maseli, Director and UNIDO Representative to the UN

Frontier technologies

We talked about, amongst other things, how cutting-edge and innovative technologies offer the vast potential to help prepare for and respond to the impacts of natural disasters. Leveraging such technological innovation represents significant opportunities to accelerate efforts to achieving the SDGs.

As the number of natural disasters and associated impacts increase, we know that technology plays an important role. Dr. Lee highlighted several emerging, cutting-edge, and disruptive ideas – all showcasing the power to transform natural disaster resilience and responsiveness. Such innovation includes artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), fifth generation mobile (5G), digitization and big data, space 2.0, robotics, clean energy, and digital twins. Two other ideas suggested by the audience included machine learning (ML) and blockchain.

“We are amassing an enormous wealth of data, and we are taking giant leaps forward in our ability to make sense of this data,” said Dr Lee. “We are learning more about ourselves as a society, and more about our relationship with our planet. We are gaining more precision in our understanding of the world’s many connections. In new technologies, we see new opportunities to achieve meaningful progress in social, economic and environmental sustainability. ITU is supporting the international collaboration required to apply these technologies to maximum effect.”

Satellite connectivity

As an innovator and advocate for digital inclusion, technologists like us are constantly thinking about innovation that relate to Internet access, digital skills, and making meaningful use of these by increasing beneficial healthcare, education, and economic outcomes.

The GVF’s presentation highlighted the role that satellite technology plays in mitigating the impact of natural disasters. By utilizing earth observation satellites to map damaged infrastructure, this technology assists in the logistics of delivering assistance to affected communities and communications satellites to quickly re-establish communications networks that enable disaster services such as telemedicine, mobile hotspots, and helping those affected by the disaster find missing loved ones. The GVF also presented the Crisis Connectivity Charter – a program supported by a number of satellite industry players, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), and the World Food Programme (WFP).

This annual STI Forum is an important discussion that brings connectivity thought leaders from around the world together to provide crisis communication support in the form of training, equipment, and satellite capacity at no costs to the disaster response organizations. There were important key takeaways from the Forum’s discussions, such as the example projects outlined below.

Example projects


Late 2018, Hurricane Michael left unimaginable damage to Florida’s northwest coast. Organizations and hundreds of volunteers responded to the recovery effort, and SES Networks did its part by restoring communications networks. Its unique Medium Earth Orbit-managed service enabled the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) to quickly assess and map post-emergency damages and help affected communities get back on their feet and connect with loved ones.

Check out this scenario where developers use NASA satellite data to predict wildfires:


In addition, SES’ satellite-enabled technology plays a key role in e-health services in remote areas, where the lack of connectivity has been a major hindrance to proper healthcare. SES’ connectivity platform enabled healthcare professionals from all over the world to use video conferencing, conduct trainings, manage medical records and offer virtual consultations, among others.

Satellite-based telemedicine is another facet of satellite technologies. For disaster responses, this concept is not new. As noted by Geeks Without Frontiers, an organization focused on achieving UN SDGs by using satellite connectivity during the Armenian earthquake in the late 1980s. They used geostationary satellites to connect hospitals in disaster-affected communities with medical facilities in the U.S. for remote surgical, infectious disease, and other mission-critical consultations.

Other concepts

These early examples of innovation in satellite technologies (enabled by the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Space Bridge project) has now evolved into lower-cost, higher-performance solutions driven by advances not only in satellite, but also in renewable energy, video conferencing, wireless and cloud-based capabilities. In parallel, disaster preparedness – real, financially sustainable preparedness – has also been evolving with the development of strategic response plans that leverage a host of private and public-sector disaster-response stakeholders.

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Enter your Call for Code submission

Are you interested in preparing for and responding to natural disasters through frontier technologies, such as cloud computing, ML, AI, data, and analytics? Does satellite connectivity play a role in your solution?

With so many opportunities for disruption and innovation, developers and data scientists have the power to transform the world and solve one of the most difficult challenges in front of us – responding to and preparing for natural disasters. One way for technologists to bring such innovation is to participate in the Call for Code Global Challenge.

IBM is a founding partner in Call for Code, a global coding competition that asks software developers, data scientists, and technologists like you to build scalable and sustainable solutions that address natural disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

The Call for Code challenge is asking you to accept the challenge to creative innovative solutions, like those highlighted in this post. This year’s challenge is specifically focused on healthcare, access to medical health records, the vulnerable, and more. Read the CTO’s letter to developers to understand this year’s focus.