Flood, famine and mobile phones

Posted on July 30, 2007  /  6 Comments

“MY NAME is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.” 

A crumpled note, delivered to a passing rock star-turned-philanthropist? No, Mr Sokor is a much sharper communicator than that. He texted this appeal from his own mobile phone to the mobiles of two United Nations officials, in London and
Nairobi. He got the numbers by surfing at an internet cafe at the North Kenyan camp. 

As Mr Sokor’s bemused
London recipient points out, two worlds were colliding. The age-old scourge of famine in the Horn of Africa had found a 21st-century response; and a familiar flow of authority, from rich donor to grateful recipient, had been reversed. It was also a  sign that technology need not create a “digital divide”: it can work  wonders in some of the world’s remotest, most wretched places. 

“Technology completely alters the way humanitarian work is done,” says Caroline Hurford of the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations body that is the single largest distributor of food aid. Once upon a time, when disaster struck, big agencies would roll up with grain, blankets and medicine and start handing them out. Victims would struggle to the relief camps, if they could. For aid workers (let alone recipients) there was no easy way to talk to head office. 

Now, when an emergency occurs, the first people on the ground are often computer geeks, setting up telephone networks so other aid agencies can do their stuff. Donors keep track of supplies on spreadsheets and send each other SMS messages: this road has been attacked by bandits, that village cut off by floods. Transport agencies announce helicopter flights by e-mail. Aid providers can find out where exactly on an incoming ship their medical supplies are, saving hours hanging round the docks. Aid donors find it easier to locate the victims of disaster; and victims queue as eagerly for mobile-phone access as they do for food. 

Read the full story: http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9546242


  1. “The benefits of easier surveillance are manifold. Take two cases: since the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s largest telephone company has started an early-warning system which would send SMS messages to every mobile phone in an area at risk of flooding.” This is an inaccurate statement by the author. Area based alerting via GSM can be achieved only through Cell Broadcasting (CB), which is yet to be activated in Sri Lanka.

    This paragraph was directly extracted from the Dialog website– (http://www.dialog.lk/en/corporate/cr/ourapproach/innovationinclusion/dewn.html).
    : ” It can be used to issue customized alerts to selected recipients instantaneously, and is compliant with the internationally accepted alerting protocol – CAP.”.

    There’s a big difference between “selected recipients” vs “every mobile phone”.

    Sometime wonder if journals are simply for commercial hype and not for scientific facts?

    The early warning system deployed by Dialog as part of their CSR program was truely for the Government of Sri Lanka; namely the Disaster Early Warning Network (DEWN). I have to agree that DEWN is capable of issuing SMS alerts to selected mobile phones to warn of Floods and other hazards. However, I have my doubts that Gov of Sri Lanka is actually using it.

  2. These are some correspondencess that were extracted from the Sahana humanitarian-ict mailling group. mainly to achive this valuable info for my records

    Comment from Gisli Olaffson on this subject and articel–

    “Here in Iceland the department of Civil Defense has written into their procedures for alerting people of a volcanic eruption the use of cell based alerting. They have practiced this in large scale evacuation drills where all mobile phones within a particular cell range get an SMS and all landline based phones get a recorded message. This has proven to be a much more effective way to alert than the old-style horns that used to sound alarm. I have to admit that hearing every mobile phone and every landline phone beep at the same time really is effective :)

    We use the same system to alert our SAR volunteers, although they are a predefined set of people and the phone system basically sends the alert/message to the list of people (if I remember it does 25 SMS receipients at a time, since the teleco’s can process bulk messages of 25 people at a time). Alerting around 1000 people on a predefined list takes about 3 minutes.

    Of course this kind of alerting mechanisms can only be built in close cooperation with the local teleco providers, making sure they provide access to bulk alerts, info on phones within a cell tower, etc.

    That’s exactly what they do when they send to everything in the area…it is actually handled within the “mobile OS” located at the teleco. And our SAR teams SMS alerts get prioritized over normal SMS. I totally agree that establishing very good relationship before things happen is essential. You don’t want to work things out during an emergency :) A key thing to also have are contact numbers within the telecos that can be reached during emergencies to cut through red-tape when you need things that otherwise might take days to achieve.”

  3. Daniel Johnson Sebarasa

    Dears’ I am Daniel Johnson Sebarasa, worked for Save the Children in Sri Lanka as a Child Led Disaster Risk Reduction Programme Officer and now occupied as a Freelance consultant/trainer on Disaster Risk Reduction & Emergency Preparedness for local NGOs in Batticaloa District. Hence, I would appreciate due to the Digital Early Warning System but, I have a doubt about this system because, what are the capacities (Education, Economy, social states and so more) have in the rural areas of Sri Lanka or other countries and how far reach into the most vulnerable communities.

    The present era this digital system accelerate into the whole world but, as the same time what are the knowledge have in the same communities. I feel that, lack of mobilizations, knowledge of these systems, lack of availabilities in the local markets, knowledge of operating system on computer and etc.

    Here with, I drop some suggestion on this, train the whole school teachers on “Early Warning, Risk Reduction, Emergency Preparedness and other skills”, providing equipments/devices to schools and public places (some systems are in Sri Lanka that, fixed public addressing [Loud Speaker] systems in the religious premises) this is use full in the remote areas. Rather many people are using dialog system but, how the illiterate people can understand SMS or other digital systems.
    I appreciate that are, mobilize the communities, providing trainings to whole civil societies and authorities, campaign on awareness events among the communities, insist into the school syllabus (from primarily to Universities)

    I wish to receive your comments

  4. We have been working on disaster risk reduction using ICTs, through multiple projects since inception, more or less. You can find our views by reading the NEWS:SL report completed in March 2005 and by looking at multiple discussion threads that can be located by using disaster or hazinfo as a search term.

  5. Daniel Johnson Sebarasa

    Dear if you wish, pl sent your id.

  6. Loved your insight!! For once someone got everything correct!! Would you mind if I put a blogroll link back to your post? :)