Real-Time Disaster Relief

Editor’s note: Sharla Stone is a freelance writer, blogger, and volunteer with Earth Relief Network

The Philippines last week topped international headlines as a typhoon ripped through the island nation, claiming dozens of lives and leaving a swath of destruction. The story has a ring of familiarity. Typhoon Hagupit (locally referred to as Ruby) followed a path dangerously similar to that taken last year by the infamous Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, which struck the Philippines with record 195 mph winds.

Haiyan was unlike anything residents, or anyone else, had ever experienced. The storm was classified as Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, which is the strongest rating the system allows, but still not sufficient to describe the ensuing destruction.

Far more powerful than the average Category 5, Haiyan was possibly the strongest tropical storm ever to make landfall. “It was off the charts anyway, so we called it Category 6 there,” says Jan Husar, who was working with OCHA as a Crisis Project Manager in the first days of recovery.

The fallout was nothing short of devastating: millions of people were displaced; thousands were killed; over a million homes destroyed; roads obliterated; electricity lost; communications cut; and entire communities isolated. It was an unprecedented disaster calling for an unprecedented rescue and relief effort.

Sometimes Emergency Crews Work at a Keyboard

Social media might seem irrelevant in the midst of a disaster, but the exact opposite is true. “We were able to locate and deliver food, shelter, and clothing, and make evacuations, because of hashtags.” Husar said. “Thousands of volunteers work from home, online, locating people in need.”

Many technology based groups responded to Haiyan instantly, helping to save an untold number of lives, he explained. Geeklist, a global collaborative of developers that Husar frequently works with, organized a Hack4Good hackathon within hours of the storm making landfall. Hundreds of developers worked to design and deploy to answer needs presented by the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office of the Government of the Philippines in Manila as well as several humanitarian organizations.

When the marathon ten-day hackathon was over, they had dozens of potential applications, with 13 of them already in use or in the final stages of development. They developed tools for real-time tracking rescue requests, matching available resources with pleas for help, and efficient data aggregation and syndication across multiple applications for seamless information sharing. Just over a year later, many of these applications were once again deployed for life-saving efforts in the Philippines, as remote and on-the-ground teams came together in answer of a new call for help.

Sometimes Techs Work on the Front Lines

Restoring, or in some cases creating, the communications infrastructure is essential for the success of relief workers and digital humanitarians. With large organizations such as the UN, resources for infrastructure restoration are often limited in scope. For example, the majority of available satellite services in the wake of Haiyan were allocated to Tacloban, one of the hardest hit regions. This left few resources for the rural island of Cebu, which suffered Category 4 winds and water swells near 20 feet.

Disaster Tech Lab, a nonprofit organization specializing in IP-based services and Wi-Fi access in crisis areas, launched a mission that would last over five months in the first phase alone. The team installed Wi-Fi access points at a base camp, which became the regional communications and networking hub. As more volunteers arrived, they provided supplies and equipment to the local ambulance service and established medical clinics.

Over the next few months, they installed a satellite dish, added internet access points at local businesses and government offices, and provided internet access to over 2,000 residents. They also provided EMT training to 155 local volunteers, and began training local IT technicians, empowering the community with the knowledge to maximize the resources provided. In a twist of fate, the same group had teams already in place on this island when the latest typhoon struck, as Hagupit seemed to be on the same schedule as the long-planned follow-up mission.

Fortifying a Disaster-Prone Community, One Byte at a Time

The Philippines sees an average of nearly 20 typhoons annually, and it is located in the Rim of Fire, where earthquakes and volcanic activity are common. In fact, the World Bank has deemed it to be one of the most hazard-prone nations on earth. “They have few resources,” Husar says. “Without the help of the global community, their prospects would be grim.” He was scheduled to arrive in the Philippines last week to join Disaster Tech Lab in the second phase of their aid mission. When his flight was delayed, he kicked into digital humanitarian mode, implementing data analysis systems and coordinating teams of remote first responders.

“Our work is not only essential to create a better emergency network infrastructure, but also because it provides a lot of medical and EMT training to the local people.” He explained that locals are being trained in emergency medical aid as well as the maintenance and repair of communications equipment. No one can be on the ground and at the scene as quickly as the people who live there, making this training vital.

Disaster Tech Lab’s efforts are centered around Arapal Camp, a deeply impoverished, yet very progressive community. Locals have built a school, implemented sustainable farming techniques, and begun vocational training programs. The residents are eager to connect their community and utilize the plethora of resources that open up with access to the internet. They are equally eager to learn life-saving EMT skills and internet-saving IT skills.

In addition to training, the follow-up mission’s goals include establishing a full-scale permanent medical clinic, extending Wi-Fi coverage, adding several public Internet hotspots, implementing a VoIP telephone system, and installing a 3G backhaul, enabling high-speed Internet access. At the last minute, the focus shifted to include emergency aid, though they still intend to continue with all other plans, to whatever extent it is possible.

For Husar, who is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker in addition to being a self-described “hard-core techie” the mission has another goal. He is now working with team Rubicon and other groups responding to the hardest-hit regions. “I’m volunteering to help these people,” he says, “and I will be documenting the teams and their work. People need to understand how bad it is there, and how important the work of creating a strong technology infrastructure really is.”

The Future of Technology and Disaster Relief

Will this be the last mission to the Philippines? Husar doesn’t think so. “Some areas will need help and support for decades to come.” He and the team at Disaster Tech Lab plan to do as much as they can with whatever funding is available. And the benefits of their hard work don’t stop there. Development of disaster relief technology truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Applications developed for one crisis are often picked up by NGOs and international aid agencies, making them that much better prepared for the next crisis. Husar explained, “We developed technology after the typhoon that was later used by medics in Ukraine. Emergency aid systems that were developed and tested during the crisis in Kiev are being used in other disaster relief efforts.”

Off-grid independent networks, drones for damage surveillance and victim location, and more advanced mobile platforms, and social media based data aggregation are among the most promising technologies currently under development. As meteorology experts predict that natural disasters could become more frequent and severe with the changing climate, technology experts predict that the tech community will rise to the occasion.

Every crisis brings new challenges, but it also inspires new ways to prevent and respond to future disasters. MicroMappers, a crowdsourced project for analyzing and mapping damages, was developed in partnership with OCHA in response to the lesser-known Typhoon Pablo, which hit earlier in 2013. It was expanded and refined during the relief efforts for Haiyan. And, it was ready to go, launching into full-scale operation at the first signs of Hagupit.

“Hackers will never stop looking for a better way, a better solution,” Husar said. He added, “At the beginning of civilization, the first hackers were the people making tools and then using those tools to make something else, building shelters and creating a better way of life out of nothing.” And it seems that they still are.

For information on the current situation and relief efforts, click here.