#KnysnaRises: Garden Route showcases the digital future of disaster response management

Cape Town - South Africa’s famed Garden Route – particularly Knysna – experienced one of the country’s worst natural disasters in June 2017 when wild fires tore through masses of land, destroying homes and causing thousands to evacuate.

Despite the emotional and economic backlash the area experienced as a result, the much-loved tourist destination is rising against the odds in pursuit of continuing to thrive, not only for residents but for tourists too.

The success of the annual Knysna Oyster Festival, mere weeks after the disaster, proves the extent to which #KnysnaRises – a fitting campaign by the town to encourage the community to keep hope alive and moving forward.

SEE: #KnysnaRises: SA shares their most memorable moments

It has since emerged that technology played a massive role in assisting local government authorities and emergency response officials to quickly and efficiently communicate decisions that saved lives.

The power of partnerships and technology

Knysna Municipality and mobile application services provider ComUnity worked together to create the Knysna Municipality Citizen Engagement Application (Knysna app) to foster more direct, interactive and open relationship between the municipality and its communities.

“The app can be used by the majority of people, because it is available for all of the major smartphone platforms as well as non-smartphone devices that can access a mobile internet connection,” says Graeme Huddy, IT Manager at the Knysna Municipality. “The app is available on any type of device and a user experience focussed interface.”

Crisis response centres across the country have the responsibility to ensure swift and reliable response to emergencies. But in order to achieve this, they need smooth collaboration with the affected people.

This service has proved to facilitate better community engagement to build stronger community ties and structures, as well as respond to emergencies.

SEE: UPDATE: Knysna Oyster Festival opens with spirit of hope despite more fires

The app made it easier for emergency services to respond to needs faster, as users receive relevant and updated information directly.

In addition to this, community members can “log and track service issues or phone any municipal division from the app, making it easier than ever to report or inform other community members of incidents”.

The municipality also uses the app to keep communities informed of upcoming events and festivals, and “can post public service delivery notices such as electricity or water interruptions and weather forecasts” – thereby fostering communication both ways and ensuring efficiency.

Serving a purpose during and after disaster

The app served a major purpose during the fire disaster, as the Knysna Joint Operations Centre (JOC) that coordinated the Crisis Response used the app to keep in touch with communities and ensure maximum safety.

“Because natural disasters such as fires typically damage or destroy communication infrastructure, communities are often unable to get help or stay in touch with their loved ones,” explains Huddy. “Our app wasn’t constrained by these concerns and was able to remain online continuously because it is accessed from the Internet through Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.

SEE: #HopeForKnysna: Garden Route events, sites and experiences not to miss

Residents also used the app to report incidents as they were unfolding, which the municipality and JOC used to assist the community accordingly.

The Knysna Municipality and newly established Garden Route Rebuilding Initiative continue to use the app to communicate notices of public service delivery and serves as a link for quick communication to push for action.

“Knysna JOC’s dedicated staff managed to limit injuries, loss of life and damage to property through their innovative use of technology,” says Clifford de Wit, Chief Innovation Officer at Microsoft South Africa. “By thinking differently and partnering with the right service providers, municipal organisations can ultimately serve their communities in better ways and deliver higher levels of impact for all.”

What to read next on Traveller24:

UPDATE: Knysna Oyster Festival opens with spirit of hope despite more fires

#KnysnaRises: SA shares their most memorable moments

#HopeForKnysna: SA Tourism calls on local travellers to visit Knysna as relief efforts continue