CBS officials checking the mobile data collection app (during app development)

Post-earthquake digital revolution in Nepal

In April 2015, a 7.8 Mg earthquake hit Nepal that affected over 1 million households and 5.08 million people. Disbursement of reconstruction funds called for a massive door-to-door survey in order to identify true beneficiaries. For the first time, Nepal and the Kathmandu Living Labs deployed a team of 3,000 engineers armed with electronic tablets to collect 10 TB data and 10 million photographs from remote parts of Nepal in just over 120 days.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Most of the places worst hit by the 2015 Nepal Earthquake were remote mountainous villages. Reaching the people living in these places and quickly assessing the damage was of paramount importance to the Government of Nepal (GoN). Considering the fragile economic conditions of most people in this region and the short time before the onset of monsoon rains followed quickly by winter meant that affected people needed to receive their earthquake assistance as soon as possible. However, assessing the damage and identifying the beneficiaries would be too time consuming if done through traditional method of pen and paper survey. Use of electronic media to capture, transfer and process the data seemed to be the only plausible way of fulfilling this massive task in a reasonable timeframe.

The biggest challenge of collecting and transferring 10 TB of data from the remote parts of Nepal was the unavailability of internet. Nepal is not known for its reliable internet connection. In addition, this was a time when the internet network might have been poorer than usual due to the damages to telecommunication towers by the earthquake and its aftershocks.

Even in places where the internet was available, the other challenge was that of limited bandwidth. In such cases, there needed to be a mechanism to send only textual data (of small data size) to the central server; while retaining the photographs (of large data size) on the surveying tablets. Once a reliable internet connection would become available to the surveyors they would then have to upload these photographs to the central server. In order to make sure that the correct photographs were attached to the already uploaded text data a system that would automatically match these data had to be developed. Failure to automate this would mean manually mapping 10 million photographs to 1 million households which would be an impossible task.

Third, since many families were spending their nights out in tents and Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, this survey was highly time-sensitive. It meant that the collected data had to be processed and the list of identified beneficiaries had to be published at the soonest. This required near real-time validation of the collected data in order to inform and expedite the subsequent repair, retrofitting and reconstruction efforts. On the other hand, it had to be ascertained that the surveyors actually travelled to the sites of houses for ‘real’ inspection. Hence, there had to be a way to ascertain in the survey data that they actually travelled to specific locations

In addition, since this project would involve a couple of 1,000 engineers on field at any given time, it required a robust progress tracking and visualization system in order to steer this project correctly and in time.

Therefore, the goal of this innovation was to beat these odds and devise an end-to-end ICT solution that would expedite the process of capturing survey data on field, transferring them over notoriously poor internet connections (or holding them safely on tablets for later uploads), processing the transferred data at the Central Data Center and identifying and publishing the list of beneficiaries entitled for earthquake assistance.

In hindsight, now that the project is successfully concluded (and dubbed as the world’s largest mobile survey executed given the timeframe), this innovation benefitted all that were involved. On the back of this innovation’s success, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the nation’s authority on statistics, is now planning to do the next census using tablets. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), Nepal’s top authority on post-earthquake reconstruction, was able to publish the list of beneficiaries in record time. Also, this intervention has been most beneficial to the earthquake displaced people who were able to receive reconstruction funds quickly and judiciously.

One of the best things about this survey dataset is that it contains a goldmine of socio-economic data in addition to data on earthquake damages. Hence, the CBS has released an anonymized dataset. In addition, the National Planning Commission (NPC), Nepal’s apex planning body, has commissioned and launched eq2015.npc.gov.np - an open data portal developed to increase the usability of this dataset to the wider audience.

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