ITU focuses on AI to fight natural disasters

  • February 10, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

The United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agency has set up a focus group to see how artificial intelligence (AI) can help in the battle against natural disasters.

In close collaboration with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the focus group will support global efforts to improve understanding and modelling of natural hazards and disasters. It will distil emerging best practices to develop a roadmap for international action in AI for natural disaster management.

The group’s first meeting is scheduled for 15-17 March 2021. Participation is open to all interested parties.

“With new data and new insight come new powers of prediction able to save countless numbers of lives,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao. “This new focus group is the latest ITU initiative to ensure that AI fulfils its extraordinary potential to accelerate the innovation required to address the greatest challenges facing humanity.”

Clashes with nature impacted 1.5 billion people from 2005 to 2015, with 700,000 lives lost, 1.4 million injured and 23 million left homeless, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

AI can advance data collection and handling, improve hazard modelling by extracting complex patterns from a growing volume of geospatial data, and support effective emergency communications. The focus group will analyse relevant use cases of AI to deliver technical reports and accompanying educational materials addressing these three key dimensions of natural disaster management. Its study of emergency communications will consider both technical as well as sociological and demographical aspects of these communications to ensure they speak to all people at risk.

“This focus group looks to AI to help address one of the most pressing issues of our time,” said Monique Kuglitsch, chair of the focus group and innovation manager at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute. “We will build on the collective expertise of the communities convened by ITU, WMO and UNEP to develop guidance of value to all stakeholders in natural disaster management. We are calling for the participation of all stakeholders to ensure that we achieve this.”

The group’s work will pay particular attention to the needs of vulnerable and resource-constrained regions. It will make special effort to support the participation of the countries shown to be most acutely impacted by natural disasters, notably small island developing states and low-income countries.

“AI applications can provide efficient science-driven management strategies to support four phases of disaster management: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery,” said Muralee Thummarukudy, operations manager for crisis management at UNEP. “By promoting the use and sharing of environmental data and predictive analytics, UNEP is committed to accelerating digital transformation together with ITU and WMO to improve disaster resilience, response and recovery efforts.”

Jürg Luterbacher, chief scientist at WMO, added: “WMO looks forward to a fruitful collaboration with ITU and UNEP and the many prestigious universities and partners committed to this exciting initiative. AI is growing in importance to WMO activities and will help all countries to achieve major advances in disaster management that will leave no one behind. The WMO disaster risk reduction programme assists countries in protecting lives, livelihoods and property from natural hazards, and it is strengthening meteorological support to humanitarian operations for disaster preparedness through the development of a WMO coordination mechanism and global multi-hazard alert system. Complementary to the focus group, we aim to advance knowledge transfer, communication and education, all with a focus on regions where resources are limited.”