Monday, 27 April 2015

Using technology to improve communication during crises

'Hotline' by Alex under a CC license
Despite how advanced mankind may look, when disasters strike disruptions do take place and, sometimes, human lives are put at risk (the earthquake in Nepal being a recent major such natural disaster). Regardless of the type of disaster, communication is essential both for the people in the affected zone and for the staff of the response teams.

Under normal circumstances, in or close to urban areas, voice and data communication are not normally a problem, even when demand is high as, for instance, happens in big concerts, conferences or other major events.

But what are the challenges at the time of a major disaster? Are we ready to put the technology we have available into the best possible use in order to handle the crisis in the best possible way?
I've written in the past about the importance of ensuring a proper food supply to those affected by disasters. However, despite the fact that food - and shelter - are essential, ensuring adequate communication to/from the affected areas is also of great importance. Reponse teams and the relevant state mechanisms need adequate communication means to coordinate activities so as to  implement or adapt the response plan. People in the area also need to have access to communication means to ask for help, provide information to the response teams or notify their loved ones that they are safe.

The latter, the amongst-people communication, sometimes tends to be considered as secondary but, really, it isn't. It helps reduce uncertainty and speculation and, in the end, it helps response teams focus on what the real priorities are.

Two major players of our internet era, Google and Facebook, have contributed to that need employing two different approaches. Google has built PersonFinder and Facebook had made available SafetyCheck. Both have found application in the recent Nepal tragedy.

Parallel to that, there are increasing numbers of apps and applications that are aiming at the response mechanism, facilitating the information flow between the response team members and the decision makers (e.g., Missionmode, Crisis360). That is on top of collaboration initiatives (e.g. here) and publicly co-financed projects (e.g., iSAR+).

A critical question, however, is: what happens when the infrastructure is also compromised by the disaster?

Mobile apps require smartphones and a sufficiently available network to be in operation. Both those require electricity to function. The use of communication networks also comes at a cost for the user but let's leave that aside for now. In general, it is relatively easy to ensure proper coverage using mobile stations, provided that electricity is available either through the grid or via generators, solar cells, etc. That is, provided that mobile base stations are available and can be deployed in the areas affected by the disaster. Contrary to that, mobile phone and smartphone users will have to rely on the mains, if still available, or the battery of their devices. Even though the batteries of modern smartphones typically last for about a day, this is much better than nothing. Fortunately, traditional phone lines are still common. Since the telephony network has its own power, typical telephones do not need a mains power supply in operation (but telephony lines can also be disrupted by a disaster in the same way that electricity lines can).

If, for any reason, GSM/3G services are not available, then typical smartphones are not much of a use. Smartphone-to-smartphone communication is, typically, not possible. Recently, however, there has been a project - Serval - aiming to allow for communication via mesh networks. Serval allows smartphones to connect to peers without the need of carrier and be able to transmit any kind of information. Serval works with peers in the same WiFi network or, if desired, through ad-hoc WiFi networks. There is a corresponding experimental Android app, which seems to be working. However, this solution requires a sufficient number of Serval-running smartphones in order to build a mesh network covering a sufficient area, at least reaching individuals with access to typical infrastructure communication service. Just having an instance of Serval in the smartphones of just a few individuals in a disaster-hit area won't be much of a help... Still, this is a step towards the right direction: technology that can provide a solution making use of elements that are commonly available (all smartphones support WiFi connectivity) in a simple (Serval is just a small download) and cost-effective way (Serval and communication through it are free - as in beer).

The bottom line is that while the existence of means of communication in an area affected by a major disaster is critical, there are numerous ways that this can be severely limited. Having a large number of alternatives in place, seems to be a reasonable choice for any emergency-response plan.

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