Technology changing disaster relief

Technology changing disaster relief
Highlights

When the British government delivered emergency aid to people fleeing Islamic militants in northern Iraq last month, one of its primary concerns was how the refugees might charge their mobile phones.

When the British government delivered emergency aid to people fleeing Islamic militants in northern Iraq last month, one of its primary concerns was how the refugees might charge their mobile phones. Alongside tents and drinking water, RAF planes dropped more than 1,000 solar-powered lanterns attached to chargers for all types of mobile handsets to the stranded members of the Yazidi religious community below.

It is the first time the lanterns have been airdropped in such a relief effort, but humanitarian workers say it is part of growing efforts to develop technology designed to make a difference in disaster zones.

Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, a computer systems researcher at Flinders University in Australia, developed the technology that allows mobile phones to communicate directly with each other even where there is no network coverage, or when mobile masts have been knocked out of action - a system known as "mesh networking".

"You typically have about three days to restore the communications before the bad people realise the good people aren't in control anymore," he says.

It is just one example of the dozens of technologies developed in the wake of Haiti to help relief efforts in disaster zones.
Another project born out of the Haiti disaster was the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (Tera), a mass text messaging programme now being rolled out by the Red Cross in 40 countries around the world.

It allows aid workers to navigate a disaster-hit country from a computer screen, identify all the mobile phones being used in a given area, and blast them all with urgent 140-character updates with a click of a button.

It was first developed in Haiti with the help of local mobile network operators, allowing messages with advice on water sanitation and medical aid to be distributed to millions of people across the Caribbean country.

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