Towers of Strength

disaster-mobile

In the Philippines there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people and social networks have become part of everyday life. So in December 2012 as the government braced itself for the oncoming typhoon that the locals called Pablo it turned to social media. Before the category-5 storm smashed into the islands, wreaking havoc with winds of 175 miles per hour, and leaving over 1,000 people dead, alongside the normal preparations officials created a special Twitter hashtag for the storm, #PabloPH, and a mobile-friendly disaster information page that helped people locate disaster shelters and other assistance.

A year later, Haiyan, an exceptionally powerful tropical cyclone, devastated Southeast Asia. International humanitarian aid workers and the Philippine government had been warned about the impending storm, but few had anticipated its ferocity — 195-mph winds and a storm surge so powerful that it swept huge ships ashore. When the maelstrom finally subsided, more than 6,000 were dead, thousands more left destitute and infrastructure devastated.

 

An elderly victim of cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines

Picture: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (Creative Commons)

Still, thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, SMS, crisis mapping and social media — and plans put into place before the cyclone to coordinate between mobile operators and NGOs — aid workers were able to connect affected people at a speed that was previously unimaginable, and start the long process of rebuilding the shattered country.

 

Disaster relief lessons drawn from the Philippines will be the theme of a workshop during this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The workshop, which is being organized by the GSMA, the mobile operator industry trade organization, will also include representatives of the World Economic Forum as well as humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross and United Nations agencies.

“At Mobile World Congress we will be looking at models from the Philippines and how we might apply them in the event of natural disasters elsewhere,”  says Kyla Reid, the GSMA’s London-based head of disaster response. Typhoon Haiyan marked the first time that the GSMA Disaster Response Program was deployed in a live humanitarian crisis.

The World Economic Forum is working alongside the other parties as part of a larger effort focused on the transparent use of data. One of the areas of the Forum’s focus is in using data for the common good for things like health, disaster relief or improving food supplies.

Big Data, public good

The ubiquity of mobile phones could help tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems, including disaster relief, however, abuses by governments and businesses alike have led to a substantial loss of privacy and strong feelings of intrusion, which has in turn led to a backlash that threatens to curtail the use of big data.

To ensure that big data can be used for the public good new privacy frameworks and political mechanisms need to be put into place.

“The value of the data — the utility, the insights, the coordination — holds tremendous promise for transforming humanitarian aid. But to fully realize this potential, we have to ensure there is trust and accountability in how data is used. We need to ensure there is balance between these innovative new uses and the protections for the most vulnerable.”

William Hoffman, Head of Data Driven Development, World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum is working on developing some of these new rules and tools by bringing together business actors with politicians and humanitarian actors. “The value of the data — the utility, the insights, the coordination — holds tremendous promise for transforming humanitarian aid,” says William Hoffman, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Data Driven Development.“ But to fully realize this potential, we have to ensure there is trust and accountability in how data is used. In times of disaster there are many actors with vitally important data sets to share. We need to ensure there is balance between these innovative new uses and the protections for the most vulnerable.”

The role of data — and efforts to protect data privacy — is coming to the forefront as technology changes how humanitarian disasters are prepared for, responded to and recovered from. Both the directly-affected populations and the institutions that pledge to support them are finding new ways to connect, enabling them to better attempt to prevent catastrophes, save lives and rebuild communities, notes the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in its 2013 World Disasters Report “Focus on Technology And The Future of Humanitarian Action.” [PDF]

That is why it is so important for mobile operators to coordinate better with each other and with NGOs, says the GSMA’s Reid.

Collaboration was more effective

In the Philippines relief efforts were made easier because the GSMA was able to convince rival operators to share what is considered sensitive commercial information about the location of towers so that there would be a big picture view of connectivity when disaster strikes.

And, she says, the GSMA also played an interlocutor role between NGOs and mobile operators Smart Communications and Globe Telecom. Rather than have each NGO that sought information on service status, mobile money service availability, instant network solutions, or short codes approach the operators individually with the same requests, the GSMA acted as a clearinghouse.

The GSMA and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a part of the United Nations Secretariat, also produced an SMS code of conduct to try to reduce duplication and fragmentation around one- and two-way SMS services launched in times of crisis.

In the Philippines connecting actors like OCHA with Smart and Globe ahead  of Haiyan meant that when the typhoon struck, collaboration was more effective, says Reid. Now the challenge is to see if the same can be done all over the globe, leveraging mobile technology effectively to improve disaster relief while protecting data privacy.

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