Communicating during disasters

An effective and reliable communication system in disaster situations is of paramount importance for both crisis-affected people and the emergency teams who endeavour to deliver relief. Those who survive need to speedily receive information on the aid services available or on the possible ways of connecting with aid providers, while  the latter require tools that support their communication response in emergencies and help them connect with their headquarters.

Current efforts to improve communications between the providers and recipients of humanitarian aid have been fundamentally shaped by the following three global trends: the proliferation of humanitarian quality and accountability initiatives; the increased availability and use of ICTs in developing countries; and changes in the role of media actors in humanitarian response. Especially in terms of the use of ICT, significant progress has been made in the development and deployment of mobile solutions for data collection and mapping. Mobile applications facilitate organizational workflows and the communication processes involved in such workflows. Mobile data technologies are changing the way charities and aid / development agencies help out people affected by conflict, hunger or natural disasters.

But can the same solutions and tools be used  to improve the quality and efficiency of situation assessment and rapid decision making in emergency crisis response? What can disaster responders do when all telecommunications and infrastructure is down?

Smartphones have great computing power and useful sensors but, unfortunately, they cannot function without network. Sometimes in disaster situations or armed conflicts that may be a need for tools to reach beyond infrastructure or function when the infrastructure has failed. Some inventive relief practitioners are working hard on developing workarounds.

We have recently come across a solution that allows benefit of smartphones beyond a cellular network, i.e., in the absence of phone towers and/or other supporting infrastructure.

ngoDuring the Nomad Workshop in Paris we had a chance to meet an extraordinary man Matthew Lloyd.  He is the  New Zealand Red Cross Emergency Telecoms and International Disaster Response Capability Manager and is responsible for all the aspects of NZRC’s disaster response telecommunications projects in the South Pacific including equipment design, user training and technical aftercare for 11 Pacific Island Red Cross Societies. In his presentation:  “Succinct Data Communication System,” Matthew explained how to build an alternative compact private communication system with smartphones freed from the cellular network,  Wi Fi mesh-based phone network (Project Serval), Satellite Text (DeLorme inReach) and Electronic Forms (Kestrel Technology Group). The Succinct Data System provides officers working in the field with an opportunity to talk within the team, collect real-time data anywhere in the world, display them on the map, send to the headquarters and make the information accessible via the internet. The system seeks to address such problems as disaster response, refugee camp operations or isolated workforce. It will be given to the South Pacific Red Cross Societies, where it will enable communications with remote branch offices and can be used as a Tsunami and cyclone warning system as well as a post-disaster and disaster assessment reporting tool.

succintdataThe Red Cross often starts working where others stop and its emergency teams are often responding to the unfolding crisis when communications are overloaded or crippled. The Succinct Data System is the solutions which makes it possible to fill in such communication gaps. It was designed to support real-time tracking for safety, personnel management and two-way communications in the absence of local infrastructure without range limits. The system is

* reliable – the data is analysed and displayed without delay or transcription errors,

* easy to use – most personnel are more familiar with a cellphone than a radio,

* cost effective – both in terms of usage and the cost of hardware,

* convenient – the basic kit fits in your pocket, and

* easy to move across borders – it fits in your hand luggage.

We guess it may contribute hugely to effective and efficient disaster response. If you would like to find out more about the system, contact Matthew from New Zealand Red Cross.