A Palestinian man on his mobile phone in Jerusalem’s Old City A Palestinian man on his mobile phone in Jerusalem’s Old City Photo credit: Amber Fares
Mobile phones and crisis zones: how text messaging can help streamline humanitarian aid delivery
by Jacob Korenblum March 2012

When the 2010 Haiti earthquake struck, text messages sent by trapped survivors became crucial catalysts for aid delivery. When the 2009 Gaza conflict broke out, cell phones were the only medium of communication left largely unaffected by bombings. Landline wires and web servers are often the first to fail during a natural disaster, but cell phone towers are typically more reliable, built to withstand extreme weather events and harsh climate conditions. This method of  communication can therefore play a pivotal role in coordinating aid distribution when crisis hits – conveying information to communities, and even mitigating conflict by providing updates that counteract incitements to violence.

Crisis zones demand large-scale aid distribution, but the very cause of a crisis can create obstacles to achieving this. Whether ravaged by war or natural disaster, crisis-affected regions are often characterised by destroyed buildings, ruptured roads and damaged public infrastructure. A properly coordinated response becomes nearly impossible, resulting in delayed or costly aid efforts and an insufficient supply of medicine or food aid when help is needed most. In these settings, one of the biggest problems is a lack of reliable information; one very simple solution lies in basic mobile technology.

In many crisis-affected regions, mobile phones are ubiquitous – found in refugee camps and informal settlements – and they represent the cheapest and easiest method of communication when compared with traditional landlines or the Internet. Mobile phone ownership has increased enormously across the global South in recent years: in the Horn of Africa (Somaliland, Puntland and South-Central Somalia), penetration has jumped 1,600% in a single five-year period; Egypt is home to five times as many mobile users as it has web users. In the past decade, this technology has come to form a regular part of life across any number of demographics and geographies, be it a farmer in East Timor or a young student in Pakistan. The text messaging function is often the devices’ most frequently used feature in many crisis-affected countries, given its low cost and its availability on any handset.

A growing trend

korenblum-box-1Growing numbers of aid agencies have come to recognise the value of SMS-based crisis response. For aid agencies with in-house software development teams, the open source RapidSMS platform (the brainchild of UNICEF and Columbia University programmers) offers a free code base that developers can customise to suit the needs of their project. To date, the platform has been used in a range of settings, including UNICEF emergency food distribution tracking in Ethiopia and nutrition data collection campaigns in Malawi. For local community-based organisations or smaller messaging campaigns, FrontlineSMS is a free downloadable software application that turns any laptop into a messaging centre by connecting it by cable to a mobile handset. This platform is used extensively, particularly by grassroots local NGOs.

Technology trends, many argue, come and go in an instant – something newer and fancier is always around the corner. Text-messaging, of course, is neither new nor fancy, but it is important to remember that people in crisis zones are not necessarily looking for flashy, high-cost camera phones. Instead, they often need the cheapest, quickest way to communicate. There are three reasons why SMS will remain invaluable in such regions. First, it saves time: it is quicker than downloading an app or sending information in areas with poor data coverage. Second, it saves money: messages cost pennies, and basic handsets (if not already in the hands of community members) cost tens of dollars, rather than hundreds. Third, because it is so accessible, it can reach many more people than traditional communications methods.

Saving time

In late 2008, as conflict began in Gaza, several international aid agencies used SMS-based technology to communicate with their staff and beneficiaries. The Red Cross/Red Crescent immediately signed on to a software programme to create a text-message alert group for different blood types, adding thousands of registered donors’ numbers to every group. In one day, staff sent alerts to 2,000 Type O donors, instructing them to give blood immediately at the nearest clinic. More than 500 donors flooded hospitals in the first two hours after the messages were sent. Trying to make regular voice calls to 2,000 blood donors would have taken close to a week, during which time many needy recipients would have gone without critical  blood supplies. A one-touch send-out of SMS alerts ensured that donors began giving blood within two hours of the campaign’s start.

Saving money

In almost any crisis zone, text messaging is the cheapest available form of communication, costing between $0.01 and $0.05 on average. As a result, an alert sent to 1,000 staff or aid recipients costs about $40 or less, a price that is well within reach of most aid providers, and far cheaper than delivering information via traditional phone calls or print media. Where a 30-second phone call can cost up to $0.15 in the Middle East, for example, an SMS alert or data report costs less than half that amount. With aid agencies typically sending hundreds of alerts and reports per day, the cost savings add up quickly.

Reaching more people

As a feature that is available on any mobile phone, at minimal cost, text messaging allows outreach to a much wider range of community members than comparable smartphone applications, web-based services or phone polls. In 2010, when new UN agency Global Pulse was tasked with carrying out a multi-country survey on the effects of the global economic downturn, its staff decided on SMS as the medium for data collection, given its ubiquitous presence in all survey sites. This year, UNDP chose text messaging as a primary medium for gathering data from more than 50,000 Somali community members across the Horn of Africa. With response data relayed instantly to in-country staff for aid delivery planning, the power of this simple technology, and its ability to reach huge numbers of people, is clear.

Challenges

The introduction of text messaging platforms into crisis zones has not been without its challenges. In some instances local communities have been initially sceptical about using SMS to find a job or access aid, either because they see mobiles as frivolous ‘toys’ for the young or because they feel intimidated by SMS sign-up and search processes. Many community members, especially women, are reluctant to share their information via text message. In order to address these challenges, practitioners have offered training in the communities being served. Delivered by local field staff or community ‘technology champions’, these training sessions give users a chance to ask questions and try the service first-hand.

Implementers of SMS services in crisis zones have also had to counter widespread concerns that the technology could be misused for commercial or political purposes. To allay these fears, field staff routinely organise public, transparent presentations of the software, where they outline the wide range of system security features (from password-protected phone log-ins to content verification) which prevent unauthorised or unsanctioned use.

From Japan to the Horn of Africa, the year 2011 – like those before it – bore witness to horrifying humanitarian disasters. This is unlikely to change in 2012. Fortunately, simple technologies like text messaging are helping aid agencies mitigate the effect of these catastrophes. They are also empowering local communities by giving them a voice in crisis response, and streamlining access to critical services so that help can be obtained, quite literally, at the push of a button.

Jacob Korenblum is president and co-founder of Souktel.

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