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John Schneider: GEM’s new Secretary General


Jul 2, 2018

What inspired you to apply for the position of the Secretary General?

To me it GEM is a program that is very much needed; it uniquely combines science, engineering, and social science, but it is also pushing the boundaries in the development of methodologies, tools, and open data in a true integration of information, making it available for the common good. GEM is also a bridge between academic science and genuine applications for decision making in Disaster Risk Reduction. Operating at a global scale, the organisation fills a unique niche between research and application - and the world needs more organisations that do that! In March of 2009, when I was trying to get support from Australia to join GEM, we held the first official GEM workshop at Geoscience Australia during the program called GEM1, so I have been involved for a long time with GEM. I have also been on the Governing Board, later as Chair until the end of June last year.Working with GEM, to me brings everything that I have been interested and I have been doing in my career, all together in one place. GEM is a great organisation that is going to be around for a long time and I hope to contribute to that.


Can you tell us a little about yourself, John Schneider, the person? 

I have always been interested in taking new challenges and now I am here with my wife (Jill Dobkin) who joined me to come to Italy and enjoy the life here. Our two children are now grown and have stayed in Australia: our son Bennett is in his fourth year at the Australian National University studying renewal energy systems and physics, and our daughter Margot has just finished high school and is using 2016 as a gap year.I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from the University of California at San Diego. I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where I did my PhD on earthquakes in Bucaramanga, Colombia. From there I did post-doctoral research at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C., studying earthquakes Peru, including field work in the Amazonas. From there I worked with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in California and AON Corporation in Chicago, mainly on earthquake hazard models. In 2000 I moved with my family to Australia, where I was responsible for developing a multi-hazard risk assessment capability for the Geoscience Australia. The program grew to include many natural hazards - earthquake, tsunami, flood, volcanic ash, cyclone and bush (wild) fire - as well as man-made hazards and climate change. We built many open source models for hazard and risk assessment in Australia, and further developed and applied them in a program of capacity building in South East Asia and the Pacific, mainly in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and South Pacific islands.


What will be the priorities to address in your first months as Secretary General?

My main priority is to further develop and implement a plan for organisational sustainability. Working with our partners, the Secretariat can build a solid foundation for the future. The short-term need is to increase sponsorship by approaching specific public and private organisations, and to secure project funding aimed at capacity building and completing the global earthquake model. In the longer term we need to expand our marketing approach to attract other sectors, such as financial, energy, and manufacturing and to gain more traction with donors in the disaster risk reduction sector, particularly in the context of the UN’s new Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The other priority is around making the organisation itself, especially the Secretariat, a more confident and effective organisation. We also need to work on internal processes such as for information management, and roles and responsibilities of staff. Through these efforts, I think we can make GEM Foundation a more cohesive and a stronger organisation moving forward. What is your vision for GEM for the next three years?I see GEM becoming an integral part of the Disaster Risk Reduction community globally, as part of the overall development and application of earthquake and other natural hazards risk assessment capability. It follows then that I see us being better supported and used much more widely in both the public and private sectors. Finally, I see GEM realising its goal to reduce earthquake risk worldwide by developing and implementing risk assessment methodologies, tools, and information.


What about the challenges associated with achieving the vision you articulated?

GEM does so many things that are fundamental to developing and applying science to make the world a better place, such as:- The delivery of Open Source software and open data;- Development of international collaboration through public-private partnerships;- Reducing the gap between academics and practitioners;- Providing tools that are fit for purpose for decision making;Improving capacity in developing countries;- Building greater understanding of social vulnerability; and- Bridging science, engineering and social science - just to name a few.These are things that are actually much more challenging than integrating hazards into multi-hazard analysis. Through our partners we can add other hazards – that is relevantly easy. The hard part is developing the collaboration network and building the sense of common responsibility and ownership for how we work together and what we do. We now have hundreds of collaborators in nearly 100 countries working with us; and there are now over 1,300 subscribers to the OpenQuake Platform. This is a pretty solid base to work from! I also think GEM is extremely well grounded in its fundamental principles of openness, transparency, credibility and public good. The only question then is in what form GEM will be in the future, not whether it will exist. Although I don’t know the form, I know it will exist in some way because the demand for what GEM does and offers is much needed; so it is really up to us to be successful because we are doing so many things right - we just need a few more champions and a bit more confidence to do it.

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