Think of a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. What springs to mind?
Sunsets over endless horizons? Waving coconut palms and tropical fruit? Dolphins leaping into the air from crystal clear waters? Local fisherman in hand-carved canoes traversing a calm lagoon?
Ah, all those things. Oh and cyclones. And tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, flash floods … and more cyclones.
I really do hate to spoil the romance but the beautiful countries that dot the Western Pacific really are among the highest risk in the world when it comes it natural disasters due to a cocktail of continental plate boundaries (which cause earthquakes) and a massive body of warm water (causing cyclones).
In the first three months of 2018 alone, the Pacific was hit by Cyclone Gita (striking Samoa, Tonga and southern Fiji), Cyclone Hola (striking Vanuatu), a continuation of volcanic eruptions on Ambae (Vanuatu) and a series of massive earthquakes in Papua New Guinea.
These natural disasters impact everything: houses, water supplies, roads and electricity systems, individuals, schools, government services … and — often more critically — health facilities.
In disaster response, getting information to the right people as quickly as possible is absolutely critical. This is where Tupaia is helping.
Tupaia provides a map pinpointing every health facility across six countries: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
When a disaster strikes, local and international response and recovery teams mobilise to assess the damage. These teams aim to restore critical services as quickly as possible — particularly medical care.
Tupaia provides these response teams with a valuable data collection tool in Tupaia MediTrak, an application for mobile phones and tablet computers that can be used to assess and record damage, automatically pushing information to www.tupaia.org/distaster, a data aggregation and visualisation platform that displays what medical services and facilities are available or affected. Where the recovery effort is likely to be drawn out, Tupaia functions as an essential tool in establishing what interim services are needed to cover the gaps.
In a disaster, network connection is hardly reliable, so Tupaia MediTrak allows response teams and health staff to collect data offline, which will sync when the mobile device comes back into range. As soon as Tupaia syncs, the data is made available to local disaster response coordinators, donors and experts around the world at www.tupaia.org/disaster. Responders can even take photos within Tupaia MediTrak, which will then be displayed on the website, providing an accurate representation of the situation on the ground.
www.tupaia.org/disaster presents an interactive map of health facilities, showing information about each facility, including their status in the wake of the disaster. Information can be viewed at the national level, the provincial level, and at the facility level, making it a useful tool for decision makers and responders at every level. So while information may be particularly valuable for the focal points at the national Ministries of Health, external groups are welcome to use it too: donors like Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and government agencies like Australia’s NCCTRC.
For an easy to interpret view on the impact of the disaster, information collected pre-disaster is compared to information collected post-disaster. This allows a comparison of which services, infrastructure and equipment were impacted by the event (and which weren’t working or functional before!) For those who need to dig deeper, complete data for each facility can be downloaded in raw format directly from the dashboard.
Data that is most pertinent in a disaster, such as the number or functioning beds, available stock of water purification tablets, and the electricity status of a facility, is displayed readily on the interactive map. Non disaster-specific information, such as whether a facility has an X-ray machine, is also available.
Country-specific resources for those entering the country are easily downloaded from Tupaia. The availability of focal point contact details, along with relevant resources like customs and immigration information, local standard treatment guidelines (STGs) and essential medicines lists (EMLs) reduce the burden on local staff who might otherwise be swamped with queries and requests for these documents.
An example from the field:
After Cyclone Gita struck Tongatapu in Tonga in February 2018, Tupaia was used to assess all health facilities in the wake of the huge storm. Within 48 hours, data had been collected from all seven facilities on the affected island. This could immediately be compared with baseline data collected several months earlier, so response teams could see how measures of water, electricity and available services were impacted by the cyclone. The Tupaia app also allowed pharmacy staff to take photos of the damage, which could be compared with photos taken at the baseline stage.
Live dashboards were made available to the Ministry of Health and incoming response teams from Australia and New Zealand and they were able to use that information to quickly plan their response and direct resources.
What’s more, this process ultimately saved money. The rapid assessments showed the damage to health facilities was, in fact, minimal and that resources should be directed towards communities and other public infrastructure (including water supplies) that had suffered much worse damage.
In Tonga, Tupaia helped maintain confidence in the health system and prevented an influx of unneeded medical teams and equipment. It might seem counterintuitive, but this certainly demonstrates that showing data on a lack of damage can be just as valuable as showing the damage itself.
Unfortunately, the prevalence and intensity of a lot of natural disasters in the Pacific are set to worsen. For cyclones, this is as climate change accelerates and global sea temperatures rise. The impacts of landslides, earthquakes and tsunamis are also worsening, thanks to coastal erosion and deforestation in unstable, mountainous areas. More than ever, it’s crucial the region is prepared.
Here at Tupaia, we’re continually working to improve the disaster response capabilities to make sure that only the most relevant and meaningful data is being collected (in emergency situations, asking meaningless questions can cost valuable time). We are aware many people using www.tupaia.org post-disaster are accessing the website for the first time, so we are also working to make sure all maps and dashboards are clear and intuitive.
Check out www.tupaia.org/disaster and have a look for yourself. Cyclone Cyber is currently wreaking havoc on the fictitious country of Demo Land. While this is dreadful news for the equally fictitious inhabitants of Demo Land, it does provide a great chance for you to see the full disaster response functionality in action.
We always welcome feedback, and we’re also keen to hear from more potential disaster response partners. So if you have a suggestion about our disaster response functionality, or know someone who might like to learn more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at email@example.com.
This resource is available to all Pacific Island countries for free. Let’s make the most of it for the benefit of the wonderful people who live there.
 Note: This is not to say that health facilities suffered no damage from Cyclone Gita but overall the buildings stood up to the Category 5 storm remarkably well — some smashed windows and minor water damage were noted, which could be appropriately triaged for when other issues had been addressed.