3 Steps that Smart Cities will Help to Combat Natural Disasters

Eric Hui

The world has faced a number of severe natural disasters in recent months. For typhoon-prone places like Asia, bad weather conditions can have a big impact on public safety and economic activities.

Typhoon Mangkhut, Hong Kong’s most intense storm since records began, wreaked havoc across Asia, including Macau, Southern China and the Philippines. It caused substantial damage and resulted in over 100 people being reported dead or missing. Japan was also hit by two typhoons – Trami and Kong-rey – within a month.

It is estimated that the economic loss caused by typhoon Hato was up to HK$8 billion, based on the average gross domestic product generated in a day.[1]

Whilst natural disasters cannot be avoided, many anticipate that interconnected smart cities will enable citizens to better protect themselves and empower governments to better safeguard private and public assets. Everyone desires a quick recovery.

Three steps to master natural disasters

Smart cities are built on the foundations of the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT sensors offer the ability to capture information, monitor situations and control devices. Insights are generated from massive streams of IoT real-time data. This facilitates effective planning, fact finding and decision-making, which all are critical functions in the wake of a natural disaster.

To fully realize the benefits of a smart city in times of natural disaster, there are three essential areas to focus on:

Step 1: Plan for resiliency

As mentioned above, typhoon Mangkhut caused extensive damage to Hong Kong – authorities received 1,500 reports of fallen trees, over 600 sections of road were blocked while more than 170 sets of traffic lights were damaged, resulting in heavily suspended and delayed transportation services. Citizens were not able to plan their journeys due to a lack of ‘smart’ information.

Looking at this deeper, there are already a multitude of sensors owned by different parties, such as transit service providers and weather observatories to monitor foot traffic and weather conditions. The missing piece is a neutral and centralized platform to collate all these data sets, apply sophisticated analysis and derive recommendations.

By leveraging multiple data sources in real-time, cities can extract data insights to better prepare for natural disasters. Drivers can plan ahead for the fastest and safest route while taking real time input of road blockages due to fallen trees; citizens can also calculate the best times to leave home for work or choose the most appropriate transport option if other services are overwhelmed.

The same applies to real-time flight information sharing and emergency services advisories. Interconnection offers many benefits in this area, helping to extract situational intelligence and build disaster mitigation solutions that are far-reaching and impactful.

Step 2: Protect for redundancy

When Japan’s Kansai International Airport was hit by Typhoon Jebi it took weeks to resume operations. For facilities like airports, which are the backbone for key economic activities such as tourism, logistics and business travel, extended ‘down time’ can have serious ramifications.

While there is a fixed time to rebuild certain infrastructures, a planned redundancy with an agile interconnected model can help reinforce high availability connectivity. For example, a single long route is unfortunately also a single point of failure. Thousands of kilometers of fiber cable make them highly susceptible to damage by storms and result in high levels of latency when exchanging data during natural disasters.

Instead, optimizing private connectivity among distributed infrastructures in different locations – such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka – can help sustain business communications and cloud infrastructure.

Equinix data centers host network PoPs for quite a number of ISPs and telcos. This means if any carrier fibers or links are affected, alternate reroute contingencies are in place to achieve redundancy and resiliency requirements.

Step 3: Promote data sharing and analysis for recovery

Data sharing and analysis are crucial for disaster recovery but currently there are challenges. Firstly, certain data collected by sensors around cities is considered private. Secondly, disaster recovery coordination is usually centralized, meaning that in many ways governments are often on their own when tasked with responding to severe weather events.

Although not all data is sharable, the exchange of ‘privacy-removed’ data would be valuable in supporting natural disaster recovery. In the case of Typhoon Mangkhut, if the Hong Kong government and transport providers were able to interconnect systems, there would be much more data sets to build models for minimizing transportation gridlock. Another example will be recovery after the earthquake strikes in Indonesia. The government can quickly classify emergency levels of affected areas based on the data collected from IoT sensors and interconnect various public data platforms. They can then smartly prioritize, deliver necessities and send rescuing teams to the most impacted areas.

Now and beyond

Interconnection fundamentally helps a city better prepare for, manage, and recover from a natural disaster. By integrating IoT-based monitoring, private connectivity and distributed infrastructures, governments and businesses can protect people and minimize economic losses during natural disasters. The insights generated also offer smart cities greater ability to enhance city planning and development, as well as the safety of all its citizens.

[1] Estimated based on 2016 GDP data

Eric Hui
Eric Hui Director Business Development - IoT Ecosystems, Asia Pacific