Two months ago, Nepal’s earthquake tested the global status of crisis technology solutions. Here is a recap of the many tools and actors that were involved, and how far we have still to go.
The Immediate Response
As could have been expected, Twitter and Facebook were choice communication platforms for anyone wanting to share their whereabouts or details of the crisis as the situation unfolded. The effectiveness of each of these responses was overshadowed however by the crippled transportation system and large-scale power outages, which left the Internet and smartphones inaccessible to some.
Phones and Charging Stations
Due to the power outages, demand for charging stations exceeded the needs. Gham Power, a local agency, worked quickly to set up solar powered charging stations. Microsoft also sent solar charging stations.
Communicating with Communities
UNICEF, with their own U-Report system, took part in getting active feedback from communities, and by May 3rd, they had implemented a radio program whereby they were able to provide psychosocial counseling to a wide population, and spread key messages that were continually updated with the most recent news. (See their full one month review here).
Google implemented it’s PersonFinder tool and was able to track about 5,000 people within 2 days (according to PC World). Facebook used its social media platform as a way to identify whether your own contacts and/or friends in the area were safe or missing. Skype offered calls to Nepalese landlines and mobile phones for free.
Crisis mapping was implemented on a wide scale. The nonprofit Kathmandu Living Labs set out to get volunteers to map the local needs for supplies and medical needs using OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi . Reports could be sent anywhere from within Nepal using SMS, an app, or simply calling. The Red Cross was working with KLL, and the Nepal army was regularly checking the KLL maps to assess needs. On a wider scale, Digital Humanitarians took to quick action on their mobile phones.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
In a country with terrain that includes the Himalayas, the advantage of UAVs is timing. For tracking damage, a field survey done on-the-ground would take weeks, whereas UAVs can cover a large area within hours. Patrick Meier wrote an informative post on the situation of UAVs in Nepal. He mentions 7 UAV teams: Team Rubicon, SkyCatch, Halo Drop, GlobalMedic, Medair, Deploy Media and Paul Borrud, and he calls for the next step to be a focus on a more coordinated response. Although he says that the response to Nepal was an improvement from what he witnessed after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
What’s Next? ….Coordination.
In her article featured in the Guardian, Claire Bennett stated, “What Nepal needs right now is not another untrained bystander, however much her heart is hurting.” If a well-oiled system is not in place, even the best-intentioned people risk adding to the chaos and confusion post-crisis if they arrive in droves. With so many actors jumping in to aid, there needs to be a coordinated system that grounds the chaos. Coordination spells efficiency. Streamlining is in the best interest of everyone, and allows aid to be brought to the places and people who need it the most.
The UN started the Humanitarian Data Exchange, with the idea that all aid organizations could input their latest data to share with other aid organizations, thereby improving productivity. After first testing the exchange during the Ebola outbreak, Nepal became it’s second crisis while still in beta stage. Hopefully this is what we have to look forward to in the near future as what will become our “new normal” for streamlining crisis response.
Mobile Phone Alerts
Although it was not ready in time for the Nepal earthquake, the USGS has been creating an early warning system, ShakeAlert, that will sense an earthquake’s and send alerts by SMS and email to smartphones to help people distance themselves from the epicenter, and hopefully save lives. Smartphones with built-in GPS could be the perfect earthquake warning tool.
These are just some of the actions that were taken. The number of organizations and individuals who rose to the occasion far exceeds the room for this blog post. But in the end, the number of actors doesn’t matter as much as a coordinated response. If true coordination can be had, we will no doubt look back on our segregated system of aid as an outdated model, and be prepared to respond as a unified global team to whatever comes our way next.
If you are interested in assisting Nepal, the New York Times summarized some of the main organizations where people can still donate to assist in the aftermath