6 ways connected tech saves lives when disaster strikes

The development of a more technology-oriented approach to humanitarian action is essential.” International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


We can’t prevent every form of disaster happening but connected technology can enable disaster relief efforts by providing tools for crowdsourcing information, big data analysis, crisis mapping and digital data collection, as these examples aim to illustrate.


data analytics

Making sense of a huge amount of data is one of the big problems emergency response teams face when dealing with disaster. It's a challenge to make all this information actionable and the Speed Evidence Information Management Portal is one way to achieve this. The Speed Evidence system allows an agency to combine data from multiple sources into one place, where it is mapped and augmented with question forums and notification systems. 


The solution was deployed following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and its use enabled volunteers in countries outside the disaster zone to make sense of SMS and other mobile traffic, helping improve emergency response times.


the power of text

Nigeria acted swiftly and decisively when Ebola struck and mobile technology was central to its response. Public health authorities worked fast to contain the problem, identifying and isolating everyone exposed to the virus. The teams used mobile apps to stay in contact and share new data on potential infections and the technology helped reduce reporting times from a dangerous 12 hours to almost real time. 


Doctors shared medical data through the system while mobile GPS systems helped track teams and monitor those potentially exposed to Ebola. The Red Cross has used SMS technology to provide useful health data in Nigeria since 2012, improving community engagement, illness prevention, diagnosis and cure.


location data

Mobile phones saved lives after Haiti was hit by a major earthquake in 2010. SMS texts were used extensively by a variety of organisations in order to deliver first response emergency aid to people trapped in the rubble, but also to share food, shelter and sanitation information. Systems were put in place that attempted to find those buried in the rubble by searching through geo-location data attached to SMS messages. FrontlineSMS also assembled a global team of 1,000 Haitian Creole-speaking volunteers to process thousands of text messages as they were sent, processing, logging, geo-tagging and actioning aid requests.


phone in a bottle 

One South African project uses old smartphones held inside plastic bottles to monitor local water sources for E.coli bacteria, which can cause serious illness. The bottles are submerged in water sources, where they take regular flash-lit pictures that are compared with images held in a database in order to detect the presence of the bacteria. 


The results are delivered via SMS to local residents, letting them know where it is safe to collect water. The data is also analysed in real-time to identify trends, which may even lead to the source of contamination. This low-cost project delivered immediate benefits on local health. That's not the only such project to model and predict risk: multiple carriers have teamed with researchers to identify and predict accurate models of disease outbreaks, including malaria and cholera. 


infrastructure replacement

The biggest drawback of mobile technologies for disaster and emergency relief is that mobile networks can be disrupted by the same event. Networks were wiped out for 48-hours during which communication was impossible after Haiti. 


Temporary mesh solutions such as Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen’s long-range Wi-Fi network may form part of the response. As detailed in this GSMA document, other first responders include the Telecoms Sans Frontiers organization and various bodies contributing to the UN's Emergency Telecoms Cluster to provide ICT for crisis management, recovery and control. 


That's not the end of the story, of course. The aftermath of disaster often also sees networks overloaded by anxious callers; that's when you can't connect, texts take time to reach destinations and when carriers race in with shared mobile assets to boost capacity. Other options being explored include drones designed to support wide area Wi-FI mesh networks.


social networking

As the massively-destructive Typhoon Pablo (aka Typhoon Bopha) approached in 2012, the Philippines government used social media to help people prepare. Social tools included information pages for mobile devices and use of the #PabloPH Twitter hashtag for the storm. Tweets were mapped to provide the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs with early damage assessment information, which helped target relief efforts and save lives. 


The Filipino population make huge use of social media (93.9 percent of Filipino Internet users were on Facebook in 2011) so this attempt was highly successful. In Japan, Twitter users posted more than 177 million disaster-related tweets the day after the 2011 earthquake (2,000 tweets a second). Why does this matter? Eight to 65% of all Tweets generated during disasters are informative and relevant, according to humanitarian technology futurologist, Patrick Meier. And the data they contain may be life saving.


These are just a few examples illustrating the scale and significance connected technologies can and do have when dealing with disaster and emergency. Are there any others that can help?

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.