Cell phones, geographic information systems (GIS), Twitter, and other technologies and social networks are increasingly being used to inform communities of potential crises and how to prepare for them. These advances and developments are also being used to help governments and agencies in predicting how emergencies may unfold.
These are a few ways technological innovations are transforming early warning and preparedness:
1. Market monitoring
Aid agencies are increasingly using cellular devices to monitor and analyze market data in remote areas. Traders, buyers, or other informants communicate information about food availability, the functioning of local markets, and food prices to agencies like the World Food Program (WFP) using SMS.
Agencies then use this data to inform programming. For example, cash vouchers may be provided in markets with high availability and high prices, and food assistance may be provided in areas of low availability. These programs are used all over the globe, in countries like Kenya, Mali, Niger, Somalia, and Tanzania.
2. Health-related early warning signs
Many organizations now use cellular devices to aid in the prevention of health emergencies. For example, the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) in West Africa, Oxfam, and other agencies send out periodic health information related to HIV/AIDs, malaria, reproductive health, hygiene, and other issues to raise awareness among phone users.
A recent survey of the impact of these messages conducted by the IFRC found that 90 percent of those who received such messages changed their behaviors in a positive way.
“When it comes to mitigating crises, we obviously need to be more proactive, not reactive, and this technology really helps us with that,” said an IFRC spokesperson in Dakar, Senegal.
In April 2013, the IFRC set up an SMS system called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), which can send vital information to more than 36,000 people in a single area in just under an hour. The IFRC implemented this system to prevent a cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone during this year’s monsoon season, hoping to avoid another significant outbreak like the one in 2012, which was classified as the country’s worst cholera outbreak in 15 years. The IFRC reports that it has been able to reach more than one million people with this method of communication.
3. Community early warning
Advance notice of an impending natural disaster can give people a valuable, life-saving head start when it comes to reaching safety. In Malawi, communities located along the banks of the Katchisa-Linthipe River, a high-risk flood zone, worked with an Italian NGO ‘Cooperazione Internazionale’ (COOPI), with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office’s disaster preparedness program (DIPECHO), to monitor water levels. The measurements were sent to communities downstream via mobile phone. When water levels start to rise, people have adequate time to prepare for possible flooding.
Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and IFRC have also used this kind of “blast messaging” to warn people of impending threats, such as high flood risks, impending storms, or disease outbreaks in Haiti, Kenya, Niger, and other countries.
4. Speeding up delivery
According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a pilot program of Action Aid in Kenya last year showed that sending advance text messages to aid recipients about pending deliveries decreased distribution time from three hours to 30 minutes.
Likewise, IFRC says they were able to reach more people in less time in Nigeria when distributing mosquito nets just by sending out text messages beforehand.
5. Geo-hazard mapping
WFP has partnered with NGOs, UN agencies, and governments around the world to map vegetation, crop coverage, market locations, and water sources in areas that are susceptible to natural disasters by using technologies such as satellite imagery, spatial analysis, and GIS.
Many governments have also started creating geo-hazard maps, which identify areas that are susceptible to natural disasters such as flash floods, soil erosion, or landslides. When a natural disaster occurs, these technologies can be used to map out where roads have been damaged or washed away, and to pinpoint the location of victims.
CRS first began using this system during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to map out destroyed homes, track the construction of 10,500 transitional structures, and calculate piles of rubble. It has since expanded the program to Madagascar, the Central Africa Republic of Congo, and plans to reach 30 other emergency-prone countries over the next year.
6. Monitoring payments to indicate vulnerability
WFP and its partners now routinely use mobile cash transfers to aid vulnerable people during crises. These programs can also be used to signal impending crises by collecting data on recipients.
For example, if many recipients are suddenly in need of more cash immediately after a transfer, or if many begin defaulting on micro-loans, aid organizations know to look for underlying causes.
– Scarlet Shelton