Outside of one of the many shopping malls scattered across Kuala Lumpur is a table with a security guard sitting behind it. The security guard is wearing a mask and wields a temperature gun. On the table is a ledger and a standee with a QR code prominently displayed. Patrons must scan the QR code that takes them to a website where they fill in their vital information or sign the ledger with their name, phone number and temperature. The guard takes their temperature, offers hand sanitiser and allows them to enter the mall. The information gathered is for contact tracing purposes and highlights how technology has aided the response to the global biological disaster that is COVID-19. 

However, it is an imperfect solution. Forms vary depending on the mall, and occasionally, there is more than one standee with different QR codes, depending on which app you are using. 

Crisis is consistent. We explore the impact on the region. Find out more about these topics such as robot adoption.

Sometimes it asks for your temperature, an ID or passport number or if the user has been in contact with any infected people recently. This lack of uniformity can raise questions among the average citizen about how effective the process really is, and is one way in which improved disaster tech could benefit everyone.

Understanding the bigger picture

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), if natural disaster response is not addressed then by 2030, over 119 million people will be left in absolute poverty. Due to its location along the Ring of Fire and within the path of typhoons, those living within the Asia-Pacific region are five times more likely to be affected by a natural disaster than those living elsewhere. And that is why, the implementation of solutions and risk mitigation must be done on a broad scale in the region. 

One of the critical points, according to H.E. Police Lieutenant General Nadhapit Snidvongs, Vice Minister of Interior, Royal Thai Government, is that “End-to-end early warning systems save lives and are key to empowering communities to effectively reduce their disaster risks”. One such system won the runner-up prize in the Prudence Foundation’s inaugural disaster tech innovation competition. SeismicAI is an Israeli startup which designed an early warning system for earthquakes. Using a series of high power seismic stations deployed over fault lines, SeismicAI provides automated warnings faster than competing early-warning systems by integrating physics, AI and machine learning.

Leveraging technology to tackle disasters

While early warnings are ideal, damage reduction and rapid response in the face of natural disaster is crucial. According to a report from ESCAP, the economic toll amounts to an average of $675 million USD, the vast majority of which is due to drought and agriculture-related issues. As climate change continues to accelerate, these numbers can only increase.

PRISM, a system developed by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), takes information from satellites and other remote sensing sources and combines it with WFP vulnerability data to provide clear, concise climate information to government officials. They then can take immediate action against drought or other famine-inducing conditions. The system creates interactive maps and charts, allowing quick assessment of the situation by decision-makers. 

Food wastage is an ongoing crisis in the region. We explore the startups handling this issue.

The system also integrates with mobile data collection platforms, enabling real-time visualisation to augment the data already in the platform. Cambodia and Indonesia’s governments are already using PRISM, as is Sri Lanka.

Why is disaster tech crucial for APAC 

According to the aforementioned report from ESCAP, 2018 was an anomalous year for disasters in the Asia-Pacific region with eight out of 10 of the deadliest disasters occurring here—three of which were in Indonesia. The report suggests that as climate change increases, so too will the unpredictability of natural disasters. This makes an organised response even more crucial to mitigate the loss of life and reduce the impact, both economic and structural. 

FieldSight, the winner of the Prudence Foundation’s innovation competition, is a platform designed by UNOPS Nepal and developed to manage infrastructure projects within the humanitarian sector. The platform uses standard smartphone networks to allow organisations to monitor construction projects and coordinate with team members. It provides oversight and mitigates poor construction quality which can often be exacerbated by remote locations. The system works offline, is affordable and explicitly aimed at the development sector. It is currently in use globally with Laos and Myanmar being the first to use it in the region. 

In Singapore, Wateroam has developed a quick way to bring clean drinking water to places struck by disaster. It does this through a light, portable, simple to use a filtration system that removes 99.9% of bacteria and virus, crucial when an area has experienced a disaster. 

The rapid spread of COVID-19 and the slow response from many governments around the world have shown that humanity is not prepared to respond effectively to natural disasters. Improved disaster tech can predict, assess and respond to a variety of threats in Southeast Asia. NGO’s, startups and the UN are working tirelessly to innovate in the field in an effort to meet future disasters with a rapid dynamic response. The lives and livelihoods of millions of people depend on it.