Technology: Mobile Phone Signals Help Deliver Disaster Aid

Tracking mobile phones enables relief organisations to get aid where most needed

Tracking mobile phones enables relief organisations to get aid where most needed

A new study reveals mobile phone signals can be used to help deliver emergency aid to the areas with the highest need.

Learning from Haiti

The report shows how scientists were able to map population movements throughout Haiti following the 2010 earthquake based on the location data being transmitted from two million mobile phones. In the aftermath of the earthquake, researchers from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and Columbia University in the U.S. asked the largest cellular network in Haiti to provide non-personal information about the phone towers most people fleeing the capital were using.

From this data, researchers estimated that 600,000 Haitians had left Port Au Prince within 19 days, and were able to locate large concentrations of displaced people to target them for aid. The scientists forwarded this data to field workers who verified the number of evacuees and then doled out supplies to specific locations.

Dr. Linus Bengtsson of the Karolinska Institute says that this kind of model for aid relief can be used all over the world, as 86% of the globe now has mobile phone coverage. For military uprisings such as Libya, however, it may not be possible to implement this technology. In wartime, “Phone operators might be reluctant to share information if there is a risk for them,” Dr. Bengtsson explained. “In natural disasters, the goal of all players is to help those affected.”

More Helpful Technology

After the success of this technological aid model, researchers are in the process of founding a non-profit organisation that will provide the same location analysis data in future disasters.

Another technology-driven project, The Ushahidi project, used information from the web and social networking sites. Among other things, they gathered Facebook messages from evacuees telling their families where they were, and used this kind of data to construct a virtual map which showed damage, areas in need of aid, and reports of missing people. Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman said, “”We pass it on to organisations on the ground which can then work with the specific needs reported by the people.”

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