“Do You Hear Me?” We need voice-enabled technologies for disaster management

Posted on May 14, 2012  /  9 Comments

After watching the video, please take a few minutes to complete this questionnaire (there are only three simple questions to answer). You may scroll to the bottom to access the questionnaire; else click here. Thank you in advance.

With the spread of affordable telecom services, most Asians now use their own phones to stay connected. Can talking on the phone help those responding to emergencies to be better organised? How can voice be used more efficiently in alerting and reporting about disasters? Where can computer technology make a difference in crisis management?

These questions were investigated in an action research project by LIRNEasia in partnership with Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation. Experimenting with Sahana disaster management software and Freedom Fone interactive voice response system, it probed how voice-based reporting can fit into globally accepted standards for sharing emergency data. It found that while the technology isn’t perfect yet, there is much potential.


  1. Dear Nuwan,
    This is a very well done video in my opinion, and can really help those completely new to voice messages and SMS to understand the potential usefulness of these systems.
    Everyone is well-spoken in the video, especially you.
    For the part on how people can be alerted to a disaster, it would have helped to enact out as well the receiving of the messages (put text at bottom of screen to show messages that arrived) and how that initiated another chain of interactions that help protect people.

  2. Dear Nuwan,

    WorldSpace satellites and technology is now bought over by Yazmi and the receiver technology has further matured in the intervening years. Now we can have the receiver as an USB dongle and be able to distribute voice messages recorded by the Disaster Management Agency just as needed and to whom it is needed.

    I will reopen dialogue with the other agencies which have contributed to the research project which is choreographed excellently

  3. Dr. Ranga – one of our initial attempts was to further develop the business practices around WorldSpace satellite radio with Sarvodaya hosting a radio channel and Sarvodaya community developed content on the grounds of citizen-journalism.

    Possibly more so than enabling the technology, the challenge was with developing a Sarvodaya program that could sustain the channel with adequate content that is always new and not always recycled. Incentivizing the community members to provide content would need to go beyond voluntarism, possibly on a citizen journalism angle with a revenue share model.

    I agree, pairing the WorldSpace satellite radio with mobile phones proved to be the best complementing redundant solution for a community-based alerting and situational-awareness system. Mobile phones with a short-text to be followed by an audio broadcast with a detailed localized voice message.

    The solution with the use of interactive voice for situational reporting, suggested in this video, would still be catalyst to incident reporting aspects during the rescue and relief operations.

  4. I have reviewed the video, nice job!! I hope that we can work together more to explore some of the new options that will emerge with the opportunites that 4G creates.

  5. Mark – thanks for the complements; I’m pasting the descriptive comment you left in the questionnaire which has many valued points:

    Mark wrote – “The question of how to reach populations which do not use the standard languages and fonts that are supported by GSM, is one which needs a lot more development. I am pleased that such a lot of progress is being made in this area. My studies show that voice communications has very serious problems dealing with network overload, in the acute phase of the disaster, this is why there is much emphasis on the use of text based, store and forward system such as SMS, or Cell Broadcast. However its abilities are not fully developed yet, so reaching populations who don’t use the languages and fonts supported by these methods is still an issue. However 4G systems do not have such a severe limitation as regards capacity, so it may be possible to broadcast voice clips to smart phones in the very near future. This is the subject of an MSC Thesis which i am just about to start working on, so learning from your experience will be very valuable.”

    1. Mark –

      in my peer-reviewed articles, I did touch on the voice congestion problem, as a result recommended that such an IVR solution proposed for community-based humanitarian organizations would better serve beyond the acute phase of a disaster such as for activating first responders and then on the return path receiving situational reports. It is also envisioned that these systems can be used by organizations in small scale events that may not be subject to acute levels relative to a national magnitude disaster.

      I fully support the 4G efforts or even 3G. Your thesis idea of broadcasting audio clips would be amazing, please do keep us informed. Moreover, the situation reports arriving over data channels with MP3 quality compression would be more conducive to Automatic Speech Recognition, with less noise, for supporting categorical analyses of text-based information.

  6. It is indeed a very good initiative. I have been working for earthquake risk mitigation and preparedness. What I have experienced that after disaster like earthquake the mobile phone towers are not going to work and after any disaster due to heavy traffic of voice calls there is going to be network jam. And in that situation it will be not possible for anyone to use the telephone facility and in this regard I have a little bit doubt about the functioning of mobile phone. In that scenario may be the radio facility will be better. Thanks. Mrinal K Nath, New Delhi

  7. late reply: Mrinal – congestion was never ruled out. The design is for activating Community Emergency Teams beyond the mean time of a disaster. The upstream was incident reporting from the impacted.

  8. Nuwan,

    You can investigate Mobile Adhoc Network (MANET) technology. This is really suitable for emergency situation as it does not require an infrastructure and can be setup very fast compared to other communication networks.