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When Disaster Strikes, This May Be the Most Crucial Aid of All

A group of relief organizations band together to rebuild destroyed communications systems so food and medicine can get where they're needed most.
Sep 23, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Janet Jay writes about science, technology and culture, most recently for Maxim and MAKE magazines.

While most aid groups were trying to figure out where to send water, food, medical supplies, or tents after Typhoon Haiyan left devastation across multiple islands in the Philippines last November, Gisli Olafsson was looking for places to set up satellite dishes.

That may seem like something that should be low on the list of needs in the immediate aftermath of the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall, but, say those with experience in disaster response, relief organizations can’t effectively deploy their resources until communication has been restored. Olafsson is emergency response director of NetHope, a group that partners with the private sector to deliver information and communications technology to the developing world. After Haiyan, his job was to assess and replace, as quickly as possible, the region’s utterly demolished communications systems.

Since its founding 14 years ago, NetHope has brought together many of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations to use information and communications technology to serve people in remote areas. One of NetHope's main initiatives is to enable faster, better-coordinated responses in the wake of disaster, whether natural or human-caused.

To that end, it has embraced collaboration and the smarter use of technology: Within 24 hours of Typhoon Haiyan’s hitting Leyte Island, NetHope began coordinating the ICT needs of its 41 member organizations, which include Oxfam, CARE, and Mercy Corps. Twelve had already begun working from bases in and outside the Philippines to assess the situation and identify infrastructure needs.

Help during the first few days after the typhoon was sporadic and uneven. Most international media broadcast from the town of Tacloban, which received help more quickly than other, harder-hit areas.

“The focus of a lot of the response was on where the media was showing things, and that’s because the communication network and the ability to communicate the needs in other places was simply not happening,” said Olafsson, calling it the “CNN effect.” The only airstrip near ground zero was in Tacloban, and with roads and telephone poles destroyed, remote areas were unable to communicate their needs to places where aid was being delivered.

The experience of the first relief team to reach Tacloban after the hurricane, a group from Mammoth Medical Missions (whose experience after Haiyan was documented in a four-part series for TakePart), makes clear the need for communication after a disaster. Once the doctors, nurses, and support staff landed at Tacloban, they were essentially out of contact with anyone who could help them or whom they could help. That condition only got worse once they arrived in Tanauan, a city that took a direct hit from Haiyan and was completely cut off from the world. Faced with hundreds of injured patients, the team realized that it would have to ration anesthetics and antibiotics.

“If we’d just had a line of communication with the relief crews that were coming in to the airport, that would have made a tremendous difference,” said chief medical officer Dr. Sara May, an emergency department physician from Seattle. Instead, the logistics coordinator sent handwritten lists of the team's needs to anyone who came through its makeshift clinic and might make it to Tacloban. Word of the dire situation made it to the evening news in the U.K., but not to where the supplies were. A team arrived to relieve the Mammoth crew a few days later, after its food and water ran out, but because of the lack of communication, the needed supplies didn’t come with it.

It’s this kind of situation that NetHope and its partners are working to eliminate. The strategy is to take ideas and technologies from the West and apply them to areas where electricity and connectivity aren’t a given even in the best of times, areas in disaster-prone parts of the globe.

One technology NetHope put to use in the Philippines was unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones. These can inexpensively provide live video of hard-hit areas to people doing relief triage or can scope out locations for a tent camp to house people made homeless after a typhoon or earthquake. They can also function in a search and rescue capacity when aided by infrared technology.

NetHope also uses crowdsourcing to help in disaster relief: Olafsson and his colleagues work closely with what they call digital volunteer groups, which, instead of deploying to the field, use the Internet to uncover information about a situation. Recently, NetHope has been working with a task force on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; restrictions on movement make ground intelligence hard to come by, but by pulling together all the information sources, the group remotely creates a more comprehensive overview of the situation than can be done on-site.

“A lot of what we look at as our innovation measures are not coming up with brand-new things,” said Olafsson. “We innovate by looking at what innovations are happening around us—cloud computing, crowdsourcing, UAVs, other similar things—and how we can leverage those in the settings we have.”