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  • Q&A: Will GEM make earthquake risk more manageable?

Imagine plugging your location into the Internet to find out, not just the likelihood of an earthquake or tsunami, but also the damage it might cause and its probable knock-on social and economic effects where you live.

The Global Earthquake Model (GEM) is the first global effort to map not just the likelihood of earthquakes but also the risks, based on the local population, quality of construction and numerous other factors.

It is a global effort focused on establishing uniform and open standards, so that risks can be calculated and communicated worldwide.

The GEM committee began work in 2009 and presented its pilot phase results this summer (3−4 June) at a meeting in Washington, United States, and then online last month. The ambition is to present a first version of the Global Earthquake Model in 2013.

SciDev.Net caught up with Rui Pinho, secretary general of GEM, based in Italy, to find out what it will do and how he hopes it will benefit the developing world.

What's new about GEM compared with previous attempts to map earthquakes?

This is the first global effort aimed at seismic risk assessment. It will let people contribute data and exchange information with others. It will look at hazard, risk (both vulnerability and exposure) and also socio-economic factors, which means that users will be able to analyse the likely consequences of earthquakes for society and the economy.

The economic costs need to be counted too

Flickr/UNDP

GEM is based on meeting real people's needs. We're not just providing difficult-to-assimilate scientific results: we're involving those who are responsible for translating scientific results into actions. 

What types of risk does the model consider?

People will be able to find out the probability of an earthquake measuring, for example, 7.5 on the Richter scale occurring in their region — but that's not the risk, it's the hazard. Eventually, we want to show the consequences.

GEM is working to estimate the number of victims, causalities and the economic losses. In order to get there GEM needs both to map the hazard and consider the socio-economic impact — the consequences for poverty, well being, access to hospitals, education and all those indirect social consequence of earthquakes.

Will developing regions have a say in the model as well?

Yes. And this is one of the main differences from similar initiatives in the past. Unfortunately, those failed because institutions in developing regions only supplied data — they were not involved in the whole process. When the results came out, these regions simply said "we were not involved in the process, so we don't believe those results and we're not going to use them".

Who decides what goes into the model, especially if there is a difference of opinion?

The governing board will always support the relevant regional institutions and researchers. But GEM's main activity is consensus building. 

If researchers in the West do not agree with decisions made in developing countries, it may happen that major insurance companies based in the West will listen to their own national scientists and they will then not take up the GEM model — and if that happens GEM will not have succeeded. So it is fundamental to get consensus.

Is it easier to convince developed or developing countries to join?

Last year I took part in the Sub-Saharan Africa region kick-off meeting in Nairobi, and it was truly astonishing for me to see how the representatives of some 40 or 50 of these countries — once they had overcome initial suspicion — were fully on board.

And it is actually easier to get them on board than the industrialised countries because they truly feel the need to do something. If you look at a map, it is clear that lots of densely populated regions with high earthquake risks are in developing countries.

How is data collection going?

It will take time for all the different regions involved in the programme to start supplying the data.

Developing countries are keen to sign up as they suffer the most, says Pinho

Flickr/UNDP

We have regional programmes in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia and we are working with all the regions so that they will provide the data needed to run this model at a global scale. But you need to have the software infrastructure in place that will allow institutions in those different regions to supply the data. So what we need now is to develop a spatial data infrastructure.

When will people be able to use GEM?

GEM still needs around 3–4 years to be able to create a first working model for earthquake risk assessment, and developing the infrastructure is part of that. In the meantime there will already be some useful 'products'. But, more importantly, the platform for risk assessment (the 'engine') will become open-source in order to support further development by the community. Early next year programmers and expert-users from around the world can start contributing in order to build the best engine for risk calculations, estimations and communications.

What if nations don't want to make their data public?

We need a geographic network that allows organisations from around the world to upload data with different levels of restrictions. You might have, for instance, the Indian Government, which is willing for the model to consider some classified Indian data but is not willing to share that data with the rest of the world. In this way the risk results for India take into account that data — and only the results, not the data, are available to the rest of the world.

How will you involve policymakers? What sort of applications do NGOs and policymakers see?

Rui Pinho: GEM is consensual, transparent and open-source

GEM

One of the examples is how to improve construction. Not to the standards of Japan or the United States — just a little step better — but one that can actually decrease the vulnerability by a significant amount. To do this, socio-economic agents and NGOs need to offer people understandable advice. If they go to the home owner or to the builder they need to be able to demonstrate, in a very simple way, that the area is at increased risk and how that risk can be mitigated. Case studies are being organised at a regional and local level, by local experts on behalf of GEM. The aim is two-fold: to demonstrate that the results of GEM can help mitigate risk; and to get feedback from local stakeholders and experts involved in case studies to ensure they can understand the results of the model.

A recent news article criticised GEM for neglecting the end users ...

This was not criticism but just noting the need for different users to be brought in. It has not happened yet, because we started last year and we're still deploying these regional programmes, getting the countries on board — and it's been a lengthy process. Now, we're getting to a stage where we can start deploying some of these activities, involving local individuals and agencies.

Do you think GEM will reduce earthquake-related costs in developing countries?

We're going to demonstrate that actually there is a benefit: investment pays off tremendously five, ten, fifteen years down the line.

The socio-economic impact model looks at exactly these kinds of things and it runs cost-benefit analyses, for example comparing the initial cost of reducing your vulnerability and the long-term savings from avoiding earthquake-related economic loses and casualties.

Social costs are calculated too

Flickr/Ron Sombilon Gallery

This is a huge problem in developing countries at the moment. When a big corporation wants to go to Africa or South-East Asia and install an industrial plant there, often there is no one to tell them what the level of risk is and what sort of insurance they need to get. And so they just don't do it. GEM could transform that.

Could you ever tackle other natural disasters?

Maybe in two or three years' time, when we feel that everything is going well in terms of ground-shaking, we'll go for tsunamis and landslides. As for volcanoes, floods, wind storms ... that's in the long run — right now we need to get the earthquakes right.

And there's another way GEM will financially benefit developing countries. It will provide a more secure situation for potential investors. In many cases they will feel much more confident because they will face a quantified level of risk that they can manage, maybe by subscribing to insurance policies that will protect their investments.

We are introducing case-studies for seismic risk mitigation in the regional programmes, each of which has to involve the local politicians, schools and so forth. We are also working with a number of NGOs asking "What is it that we need to provide to an organisation like yours?"

Standards for data assessment are being developed and the first global databases will be populated over the coming years. During those years, regional programmes will provide feedback and add data where possible.

Earthquake-prone regions are contributing to building the model — it is consensual. And it is transparent and open-source. This is a big difference from the past — people can see how the model is made and can question it and improve it.

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