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Early Warning Systems: a techno-social approach

June 2017, by Esteban Sanchez-Canepa

Increasing the resilience of populated areas to natural hazards was a key topic discussed at the UNISDR 2017 Global Platform for held in Cancun, Mexico, in late May.

Inclusion, awareness, innovation, funding, cooperation and implementation are the cornerstones of both the Global Platform and the Sendai Framework, an international disaster risk reduction plan endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2015. The framework aims to minimize global casualties and economic losses caused by natural hazards by 2030, emphasizing social inclusion as a key aspect to succeed in this endeavor.

Understanding risk is a first priority of action of the Sendai Framework. Practices and policies related to this should be based on understanding all dimensions of risk, including the exposure levels of individuals and assets and the natural hazard characteristics of different regions of the planet.

Technology plays a vital role in achieving risk reduction, and real time and reliable data is needed for the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) of cities, making innovative sensing and communication systems a high priority for city managers.


“For $100 spent on disaster response, only $1.3 is spent on prevention. We need a reality check.”

-Johannes Luchner, Director of DG ECHO’S Crisis Management Directorate


Beyond obtaining valuable information to understand risks, technology can also be used to reduce disaster risks through the creation of multi-hazard early warning systems.

Investments on structural and non-structural measures are important to reduce economic losses, as specified in the priorities list of the Sendai Framework. It is vital to leverage innovations in the Internet of Things (IoT) field, which has proven its potential in remote sensing applications. For example, we are currently able to sense different aspects of our daily lives and make better decisions based on this information, and this same concept can be applied to urban areas.

However, technological advancement is not enough for the success of early warning systems—the social aspect is equally important. Society’s adoption of new technologies and its awareness of them must be included during the planning and implementation of technological solutions.


“There is a fundamental gap between weather stations’ information and citizens. This must change.”

-Dr. Andrea Celeste Saulo, Director of National Metrological Service (Argentina)


Each city is a living entity composed of the customs and habits of a society, and these will define the procedures for early warning system implementation. Understanding cities’ complexities requires the active collaboration of all stakeholders in urban management, necessitating both the public and private sectors to take an active role in risk reduction by including the diversity of citizens and leveraging historical knowledge of the natural hazards of different ethnic groups in particular regions.

This is why channels such as the UNISDR Global Platform are highly important, functioning as forums where the physical and social sciences can interact and model solutions with novel technological approaches and a strong humanitarian basis.

The Sendai Framework has been set to take definite action in reducing our vulnerability to natural hazards, and our first evaluation milestone of this century will be 2030.