Life as Clay

Public Health & Technology: Confronting the Realities of Disaster

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My true interest, the one that drives my pursuit of programming, is the use of technology to improve response during public health emergencies. I do not write a lot about it on this blog because I currently am not directly involved in emergency response or recovery work. Previous experience, both post-tsunami and post-Katrina, taught me that technology, when deployed properly, can save time, ease minds, and help keep disaster survivors safe. Technology becomes a sharp double-edged sword during times of crisis, though, because if it does not work as expected when needed, it can confuse response efforts and effectively harm the people it is meant to help.

The devastation in Haiti from yesterday’s earthquake is severe and people there are suffering. Families search desperately for missing members who may be buried under the rubble of a collapsed building. People probably cannot get the fresh water they need or visit the markets that usually supply their food. I once saw a family of three, several days after Katrina hit New Orleans, dehydrated, tired, ragged, dirty, and exhausted, walking towards the Red Cross headquarters building in search of diapers for their baby. In contrast to conditions in Haiti, that now seems like a problem of the privileged.

How does technology shoehorn itself into these situations of human suffering? How do we use it to save lives? Find missing children? Prevent disease? Provide water? Understand that people need diapers for their children? The answers are not obvious and they may differ with each unfortunate disaster.

I believe in the power of technology to transform disaster response. So today, as I sit at my desk and build a database, surrounded by more than I need and the luxuries of a modern life of gadgets, my head will be elsewhere, wondering how I could leverage those devices in Haiti, to help improve the lives of the people suffering.

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Written by Clay

January 13, 2010 at 12:39

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