ITU Launches Working Group Focused on Using AI to Respond to Disasters
Tuesday, February 09, 2021 | Comments

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) launched a new focus group to address the increasing prevalence and severity of natural disasters with the help of artificial intelligence (AI).

In close collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the ITU focus group on AI for natural disaster management will support global efforts to improve understanding and modeling of natural hazards and disasters. It will distill emerging best practices to develop a road map for international action in AI for natural disaster management.

The group's first meeting is scheduled for 15-17 March. 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."

Natural disasters 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 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 developed by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

AI can advance data collection and handling, improve hazard modeling by extracting complex patterns from a growing volume of geospatial data, and support effective emergency communications. The new focus group will analyze 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 that 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," noted the Monique Kuglitsch, chair of the focus group and innovation manager at ITU member 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 focus 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 (SIDS) 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."

The proposal to launch the new focus group was inspired by discussions at an AI for Good webinar on International Disaster Risk Reduction Day, 13 October, organized by ITU and UNDRR. The conversation continued at a subsequent AI for Good webinar, 21 January, organized by ITU and UNEP.

"WMO looks forward to a fruitful collaboration with ITU and UNEP and the many prestigious universities and partners committed to this exciting initiative,” said Jürg Luterbacher, chief scientist and director of science and innovation at WMO. “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, communications and education, all with a focus on regions where resources are limited."

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