Mobile phones improve emergency response in developing countries

Developing TelecomsWhile many cannot imagine life without mobile phones, the technology can be a life-saver in disasters. Case in point are recent crises in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Nepal, and the Philippines where mobile network coverage enabled those directly impacted to collaborate in order to help themselves and others more quickly and effectively than external aid agencies.

A new report Connected Citizens — Managing Crisis by Developing Telecoms noted that working with “Connected Citizens” enables aid agencies to work more efficiently by better targeting the areas of greatest need and more accurately identifying requirements.

The overall effect is to speed up response, improve aid delivery and reduce both the short and long term impact of disasters. Maintaining mobile network coverage enables connected citizens to become active partners in recovery and reconstruction, rather than passive recipients of aid.

Mobile phone use in developing countries is growing fast. Better network coverage and falling handset prices mean most people in developing countries have access to a mobile phone, even if they don’t own one.

Internet-enabled smartphones are becoming widespread — the cheapest Android smartphones are now below US$80 in many parts of Asia — and cheap pay-as-you-go voice and data access is the norm. Thanks to mobile phone networks, internet coverage now extends beyond the main urban centres for the first time.

During crises such as natural disasters and conflicts, connected citizens in developing countries are finding new solutions to traditional challenges. First-hand experience of these events provides a greater understanding of the immediate needs. The ability to access information and communicate with those affected provides connected citizens with a much better understanding of scope and extent of disasters. This allows them to find and implement solutions much more quickly than external aid agencies have previously been able to.

The report details several examples of this new trend. In Iraq, mobile network operators collaborated to set up a single short code SMS hotline to feed information back to a dedicated call centre about the needs of displaced persons in response to user requests. Similarly, during the Nepalese earthquake, mobile operator Ooredoo reacted to user needs by setting up a satellite link to reconnect families using a mobile phone internet connection.

Healthcare has seen some of the most striking examples of connected citizens making a difference. During West African Ebola outbreak, UNICEF developed mobile applications (apps) in Liberia to send and receive information about the spread of the disease. Online conversations were aggregated on the web to track the disease and identify communities under the greatest threat.

The app enabled UNICEF to understand citizens’ needs in minutes rather than months as was the case in the past. At risk communities could be contacted rapidly to prevent them becoming infected. It also offered new possibilities such as a messaging system that was programmed to respond to online rumours.

Developing the app locally meant it was better suited to the needs of the crisis. Targeted towards more technically literate young people, uptake was significantly higher than for other apps UNICEF developed outside the region and as a result the Ebola crisis was shortened.

The implications for disaster recovery aid agencies and mobile phone operating companies in developing countries are significant. Until now, the priority has been to ensure emergency connectivity for professional responders. This needs to change to ensure full mobile phone connectivity is maintained throughout crises for entire affected populations.

For network operators, greater emphasis should be placed on preparedness and on the resilience of networks during crises. Where infrastructure is destroyed priority must be given to re-establishing full coverage. Mobile phone operators also need to collaborate better with aid agencies, local populations — whether they are customers of their own or a rival’s network — and each other to share resources.

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