Social Vulnerability

How is it of relevance?

To better understand and address earthquake risk in its entirety, we need to go beyond seismic hazard, exposure, and the vulnerability of the built environment. For a complete picture it is essential to understand also the socio-economic characteristics of populations exposed to earthquake threats, and to meaningfully combine that information with estimates of seismic hazard, exposure, probabilities of loss of life, and damage to property, achieving an integrated and holistic estimate of risk in an area.

The integration of physical risk with a) the social characteristics of populations, and b) the susceptibility of people to the adverse impacts of earthquakes, leads to an encompassing perspective on global risk assessment which:

  • considers loss and damage as part of a dynamic system, where interactions between natural systems and societal factors redistribute risk before an event and redistribute loss after an event
  • mainstreams socio-economic vulnerability and resilience in policy discussions on earthquake loss and damage 
  • evaluates loss and damage, taking social factors into account at different time and space scales
  • uses risk assessments in benchmarking exercises to monitor trends in earthquake risk over time
  • recognises that both causes and solutions for earthquake loss are found in human-(built) environmental interactions
Portugal: Mapping Dimensional Drivers of Social Vulnerability

Portugal: Mapping Dimensional Drivers of Social Vulnerability

Portugal: Mapping Dimensional Drivers of Social Vulnerability

Portugal: Mapping Dimensional Drivers of Social Vulnerability

Portugal: Socio-economic Vulnerability

Portugal: Socio-economic Vulnerability

Identifying Dimensional Drivers in Porto: Advanced Visualization

Identifying Dimensional Drivers in Porto: Advanced Visualization

OpenQuake Integrated Risk Mapping

OpenQuake Integrated Risk Mapping

OpenQuake Integrated Risk Mapping

OpenQuake Integrated Risk Mapping

The project in a nutshelll

The project will deliver methods, metrics, and open source software that can be used worldwide to explore the compounded nature of earthquake events where environmental processes blend with factors such as urban growth, marginalization, and poverty to bring about and magnify earthquake impacts.

The main project components will be integrated into the OpenQuake Platform and include:

Socio-economic databases

  • National – for use at the global level
  • Sub-national – for provinces in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Municipal – for municipalities of Japan and Quezon City

Robust and transparent methods and indicators/indices for measuring

  • Social vulnerability
  • Disaster resilience
  • Economic vulnerability
  • Integrated risk

Interactive tools

  • Integrated Risk Toolkit

A collaborative knowledge sharing and integration environment

An environment for experts and others working in the field to share knowledge, best practices, and data, related to the assessment of socio-economic vulnerability, resilience and integrated risk to natural and man-made hazards.

Who is developing the databases, metrics and tools?

The project is a collaborative effort from the GEM Foundation and CEDIM (KIT) with involvement from the Willis Research Network. Bijan Khazai from KIT is leading the project, which is coordinated by GEM’s Christopher Burton. There are a number of PhD and masters students contributing to the project from both institutions. See also our group space on GEM Nexus.

Socio-Economic Databases 

Development of these databases involves the identification and inclusion of relevant variables for measuring social vulnerability, resilience, and economic vulnerability at various scales. The databases are structured and sub-structured according to a taxonomy that accounts for eight major categories (population, economics, education, health, governance and institutional capacities, the environment, infrastructure and lifelines, and current indices).

The databases are being improved incrementally, through completeness and internal consistency checks as well as statistical analysis.

Global (national) level

At the global level a database was developed, based on a country-level indicator system for 197 countries worldwide and consists of data culled from 44 publically available sources.

Sub-national level

Asia-Pacific: Data at the provincial level is being compiled and collected for the following countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vanuatu, Vietnam.

Municipal level

Data at the municipal level is being compiled and collected for the following municipalities:

  • Japan: a database of over 114 socio-economic parameters for all 2000+ municipalities in Japan
  • Philippines: Quezon City including various barangays or districts

Working at the municipal level (also) serves as a reality check: to validate the structures of the indices in terms of representativeness, scale, development level, and data availability issues.

The structure of the database with its various levels

The structure of the database with its various levels


Methods, metrics, and tools are being developed for the construction and implementation of three types of indices: a) social vulnerability, b) disaster resilience, and c) economic vulnerability. The work takes place at national, sub-national, and municipal levels of geography.

A set of relevant default indices will be available from the OpenQuake platform for worldwide use (application at national level) and at sub-national levels (see also above) as default. However, we strongly encourage development of indices by stakeholders themselves, so that the indices are based on stakeholder contribution and local knowledge of the socio-economic context in the area of interest. The Integrated Risk Toolkit (see below) is especially developed for that purpose.  

The following is a brief introduction to the indices:

Social Vulnerability

Generally speaking, social vulnerability is defined as the potential for loss or other adverse impacts. Within the context of the GEM, social vulnerability indices (whether quantitatively or qualitatively derived)  are intended  to assess the potential for aggravating physical losses due to pre-event, inherent, characteristics in society. The index development process at all geographic scales draws from current indices and methods that include, but are not limited to:

  • The Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) (Cutter et al. 2003),
  • The Disaster Risk Index of the UNDP;
  • The Urban Seismic Risk Index by Carreño et al., 2007; 2012

Disaster Resilience

The ability to measure resilience is increasingly being seen as a key step towards disaster risk reduction. Development of resilience indices occurs under the auspices of the Seismic Risk in South America (SARA) project. The indices quantify the potential of populations to resist, adapt, mitigate, learn, and recover from earthquake impacts. For that we apply a multi-dimensional approach which focuses on the social, economic, political/institutional, infrastructural, and community factors that affect resilience.

Economic Vulnerability

Within the context of GEM, economic vulnerability is assessed by quantifying the potential for indirect economic losses from earthquakes. Variables that are taken into account for the index development process are (among others):

  • Sector-specific capital dependency
  • Sector-specific labor dependency
  • Sector-specific supply chain dependency
  • Sector-specific infrastructure dependency
  • Production losses (Business disruption)
  • Loss of public services
  • Tourism receipt losses
  • Downturn in economic growth
  • Investor confidence


The final selection of variables or indicators for all three index types are being evaluated and validated using data on fatalities, direct and insured monetary losses, displaced populations, and injuries associated with earthquakes coming from earthquake damage/loss databases (such as the GEM Global Earthquake Consequences Database).

Use Cases

Four use-cases are being developed to demonstrate the context in which the index types outlined above, the methods, and the software under development for holistic risk assessments in OpenQuake may be used for decision-making. The work is being conducted at multiple levels of geography and utilises both statistical and stakeholder-driven approaches for understanding the integrated/holistic risk of a given area. 

Proof of Concept: Integrated Risk Assessment for Portugal

Use-case 1: Social Vulnerability Model for Shelter Needs

Use-case 2: Indirect Economic Loss Vulnerability

Use-case 3: Urban Growth Planning for Kathmandu

Use-case 4: Building a Disaster Resilient Quezon City 


A range of tools are being developed as part of GEM’s OpenQuake suite of software. All tools are open-source, following GEM's commitment to development in the open.

OpenQuake Integrated Risk Toolkit

This toolkit aims to serve a wide range of OpenQuake users such urban and development plannersdisaster risk managers and scientists.

It comprises a set of tools that allows users to:

  • combine their local knowledge and data, 
  • develop their own indices, 
  • integrate these with physical risk estimates, and 
  • visualize them for further analysis.

The toolkit is based on a multi-criteria decision analysis tool developed at KIT and will guide users through the various steps suggested in literature for the development of a robust index. Due attention is being paid to the interface of the toolkit, to enable users with less background knowledge to develop reliable indices. The toolkit will support the following steps:

  • selection of variables (from GEM data or users’ own data),
  • standardisation of the data,
  • analysis of the data (multivariate),
  • optional - weighting and aggregation of the variables (including the ability to weigh variables using participatory approaches such as the Analytic Hierarchy Process), and
  • optional - dynamic sensitivity analysis to evaluate and understand the amount of uncertainty in the index.

In addition, the Integrated Risk Toolkit will feature a number of tools that allow users to combine indices with earthquake hazard and physical risk estimates, but also to view these with population and other exposure projections for a detailed understanding of earthquake risk. In more detail, it will be possible to:

  • couple individual variables, indices, or composite indices with estimates of physical risk, to develop 'total risk' estimates and maps,
  • overlay earthquake hazard scenarios, shake maps and other hazard variables with individual variables, one of the three indices, or a composite index, and
  • overlay population and/or building stock exposure maps with individual variables, one of the three indices, or a composite index. 
Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Mockup Examples: Integrated Risk Toolkit

Knowledge sharing

A collaborative knowledge sharing and integration environment

GEM and KIT, in interaction with other institutions, are working to create an environment for experts and others involved in the field, to share knowledge, best practices, and data related to the assessment of socio-economic vulnerability and resilience from disasters.

The collaborative site has been developed over the past years, and this project will give another boost to it. VuWiki serves as knowledge base, ontology and taxonomy, for vulnerability assessment methods. We invite all those that are interested to create an account. The wiki provides support for all those that are assessing (socio-economic) vulnerability and resilience and brings different information and methods for doing so together in one web-environment.

Creating a network

Together with many others we are also trying to create a network of institutions working on socio-economic vulnerability and risk assessment, to facilitate knowledge exchange and share latest developments. Currently these institutions include:

How can I use the project outcomes?

Most of our work will become available from November 2014.

Through our online group on Nexus (GEM's collaboration and discussion platform), we will share reports and other interim outcomes of our work when we can.

How can I contribute?

  • We are always interested in receiving feedback on our work
  • If you have studies/data or other information that could enhance the project, we are keen to hear from you
  • If you would like to collaborate in other ways, please do contact us

Contact  Dr. Christopher G. Burton at