SMS SOS: Mobile phones in Pacific island disasters

Olivia Wilson is a geoscientist and mapping specialist.


I’ve been following with interest the discussions around Danielle Cave’s paper and blog post about the impact of information and communications technology on the Pacific island region. With the boom in mobile phone use, I would like to raise some current ideas about how this connectivity can be harnessed to help with disaster rescue efforts.

Natural disasters often occur with little or no warning and so coordinating a response can be extremely difficult. Pacific Island countries know this all too well, as the region is one of the most disaster-prone in the world.

Rescue efforts in the aftermath of a disaster are time-critical and so the rapid sourcing of information can save lives. The increasing connectedness of Pacific Island populations provides the potential for real-time mapping of people’s locations and needs, and mobile phone technology is emerging as the most resilient form of communication. Although reliant on phone towers, systems exist that bypass the towers or allow for the easy deployment of replacement infrastructure.

Here in Australia, Telstra maintains COWs (Cells On Wheels) to provide quick restoration of mobile phone services and MEOWs (Mobile Exchange On Wheels) to provide temporary fixed line and broadband services for emergencies. Both were deployed just last week when a fire took out the Telstra exchange in Warrnambool, Victoria. This is also standard practise in the US, and has been for some time (this CRS report to congress [p.6] describes their use during 9/11). [fold]

The power of mobile phones is that they are now so common. In the Pacific Islands, even if an individual does not own one, it is very likely they know someone who does. No other form of two-way communication is so widely used. Once connectivity has been restored after a disaster, mobile phone technology can be used to obtain location and status information in a rapid and coordinated way.

After the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, the only communications system that wasn’t knocked out was the mobile internet system. SMS and phone calls were impossible but New Zealanders could access Google’s Person Finder, an open source web application developed in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake disaster. New Zealand has a much wider distribution of web-enabled mobile phones than in most Pacific islands but we can look to Haiti for solutions using SMS.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, mobile phone towers were quickly repaired. In an effort to centralise data collection and provide Haitians with a way of requesting help, Ushahidi, a not for profit tech organisation, lobbied the authorities for the release of an SMS shortcode. This shortcode was advertised on the radio and people affected by the earthquake provided their location and needs in text. Ushahidi coordinated and crowdsourced volunteers to translate the information from Haitian creole into English (the dominant language used by those coordinating relief efforts) and georeference the texts so they could be mapped in near real-time (see video above). This constantly updated map was used by the large humanitarian relief and aid agencies such as the UN, FEMA and the US Marines.

In the Pacific Islands, developing software and networks that would enable a similar SMS-focused model could be helpful in response to a disaster. This method requires the manual input of position information and translation of texts by people online with the time and internet access required to map the information. Ushahidi maintains a standby volunteer taskforce for just this purpose, tapping into the goodwill of the online community and often the diaspora of a disaster-affected country.

Critics of crowd sourced data are wary of the hyperbole. They are concerned about the confusion when trying to sort information from noise, the need for those coordinating relief efforts to have sufficient bandwidth to view online maps and the false hope that may come from SMS shortcodes. Innovation around crowdsourcing, however, continues to emerge from the online community in response to disasters such as Japan’s 2012 earthquake and tsunami.

As the use of such software and techniques become more widespread and agencies more aware, the use of shared information will become more refined and software will become more precise. Equipping the few with more sophisticated and expensive technology to allow them to access collated information provided by the many isn’t that difficult. Using information directly from the people that require help, with some intelligent data mining, should lead to increased effectiveness in disaster relief.

The Pacific Islands, a region prone to natural disasters, stands to gain from such developments in situations when they need it most. Disaster response agencies, donors and governments in the Pacific Islands should be looking for the most suitable product that will help to quickly provide access to mobile phone networks in a disaster.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.