Ready or not… Meeting up with Techfugees

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I’m now puttering about in Washington, DC. In the early mornings and late evenings I help out with the digital marketing of my cousin’s startup in Australia. In-between I spend some days seeing friends and former colleagues for meet-ups. And then there are also Meetups, which I’ve been doing an average of two a week, mostly tech-related ones.

The last one I attended last Thursday is called ‘Techfugees‘, a portmanteau of the words ‘technology’ and ‘refugees’. It was the first meeting of the group, and most definitely not the last one given everyone’s enthusiasm and commitment to their work in assisting refugees in or from conflict/post-conflict areas. About 20 participants (meetupers? meetlovers?) showed up, which wasn’t too shabby given there was thunderstorm earlier that afternoon. It fwas a good mix of non-profit and tech folks who are in one form or another working with the Syrian refugees here in the US. Their work range from providing digital literacy classes or developing an app for children to improve their psychosocial development, while others are looking for ways to communicate effectively via SMS.

I’m interested in the topic myself given my previous engagement in humanitarian work- not in a conflict zone, but still in an environment just as disrupted- in a post-disaster setting, when I worked on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) with the UN-FAO on its Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Response and Rehabilitation. I want to get a better grasp of how technology can facilitate aid in all its forms, be it providing food, water, shelter, and other emergency supplies, to improving refugees’ living conditions or expediting the movement of people.

It got me into thinking of the technology already available out there, or how it could have played a role in my previous work, with the affected people and emergency responders in mind. So I came up with the list below, roughly arranged according to what’s crucial as soon as a powerful earthquake jolts a city or a conflict erupts. The information below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope will be just as useful.

  1. Robots. They now exist in Japan as big and clunky life-savers. But soon they’ll be as small as cockroaches.
  2. Satellite phones. Communications are usually brought down intentionally or as collateral damage in emergency situations, that’s why satellite phones, or sat-phones, are a staple in many bigger organizations that can afford it. But I learned from experience there are also times when their signals can be jammed, like that time when some VIPs visited the project site I worked in.
  3. CB radios. In hindsight, it seems this more humble cousin of the sat-phone, wasn’t used that often except for communication by security teams, or at least that’s what I observed.
  4. Radio. Call it old-school, but AM radio was one way farmer-beneficiaries learned of seed and fertilizer distributions that were going to be held in their villages. And the other ways? Word-of-mouth and town-hall meetings.
  5. Firechat or GoTenna. Users of Firechat create a virtual mesh to allow mobile communication via bluetooth or wifi, even when there’s no cellphone network for some reason (see point 1). It has gained some modest traction in some cities in the Philippines, although I’m not sure why this app hasn’t gone mainstream given its potential especially in areas where communication gets cut-off (see point 2). Is it the lack of any admin rights to the conversation, or the sense of urgency to install the app? Let’s not wait for an emergency to happen before it catches on. I haven’t used GoTenna myself, which acts like a CB radio for texts, but the concept also looks promising.
  6. Data-gathering/surveyed instrument apps. I was envious of a university friend who also happened to be working on M&E in another international non-government organization (INGO). They used tablets and a data collection app for their surveys. It’s faster and eliminates one layer of data input, yet it still poses issues and challenges. Meanwhile, we conducted our surveys with ol’ trusty pens and papers.
  7. Drones. They have taken off (no pun attended) in the past years mostly for video recording. I can imagine it useful for visual monitoring and transporting medicines and other portable emergency supplies.
  8. IDs. I saw one beneficiary whip out an ID with a barcode given by an INGO, possibly for monitoring the benefits she has received from them. We couldn’t honor the ID because it’s not a government-issued one (but I did get envious again).
  9. Mobile cash transfers. Cash transfers are a popular intervention because it stimulates the local economy just right after a disaster situation. For a country which has a high mobile penetration such as the Philippines, there is an opposite trend in the use of mobile cash transfer versus other developing countries, say, Kenya. Despite my country’s inclination to mobile technology, it’s still largely a cash-based economy. I’ve seen endless lines outside banks and pawnshops which participate in cash transfer programs to dispense money on designated days of the week. Many factors impede the adoption of mobile cash transfers, a few of them include perceptions of trust on telcos, technological literacy, or dealing with lost cellphones (and numbers) that ars supposed to ‘receive’ the money.

Wish list

Here’s my list of technology- both hardware and software- that I hope would exist soon and could prove very useful in humanitarian response situations. Many are very feasible and within reach, and I won’t be surprised if they actually do exist already.

  1. Mobile communication kit. A cellphone that can be recharged via solar power would be ideal for communication to continue in the event of downed power lines. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, temporary mobile networks were up in less than a week, giving life to cellphones. and easing communication lines, until their batteries ran out.
  2. Slack for cluster coordination. One of the mechanisms established in emergency situations are so-called ‘clusters’- groups made up of different organizations working on the same areas such as WASH (water, sanitation and health), agriculture, housing, and other sectors. Email is still king when it comes to communicating to multiple people. But in conflict and disaster areas where urgency is the name of the game, Slack can fill that void for sending quick-fire messages that can’t wait, provided there’s internet connection.
  3. Emergency kit with tracker. In addition to supplies like food and water, emergency kits can be equipped with senors, which are triggered to track people (or at least, the kits) who could get buried alive inside collapsed houses or buildings in the event of bombings or earthquakes (as suggested by Julieane Camile Lacsina).

Use of technology in refugee situations has a huge potential, both as means to facilitate communication and coordination, or as a product itself that could save lives. Many of these technologies- be it hardware or software- are already out there. Personally, I’m looking for systems, platforms or norms/protocols that create additional value by taking advantage of existing yet fragmented tech to facilitate communication and coordination in post-conflict or disaster settings.

Do you have anything to add to the list? Let me know by leaving a comment or tweet me @jadz.

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