When disasters strike, whether conflicts, flooding, earthquakes or epidemics, the effectiveness of the emergency response can often mean the difference between life and death. Mobile phones have a crucial role to play in emergency response, and will only grow in importance as they become more ubiquitous (the ITU estimated there were 6.8 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide in 2013). The OpenSignal team has developed an app called CrisisSignal, which is designed to collect data on cellular and Wi-Fi coverage in emergency situations. The app, available on Google Play, allows users to contribute to mapping coverage in (or very close to) real time, providing information to emergency responders, humanitarian agencies and local communities so they can make appropriate decisions as part of the relief effort.
CrisisSignal has been tested in several emergency response situations, such as after Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012 in collaboration with the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and following the devastation in the Philippines from typhoon Haiyan in 2013. It is about to be rolled out to the largest cohort so far, to assist relief efforts for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Nethope, a group of 43 international humanitarian NGOs, is working with a number of organizations to distribute 10,000 phones in West Africa, funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. These phones are currently en route via Ghana and have several apps pre-installed, including CrisisSignal, to map coverage in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. OpenSignal has teamed up with Esri, who supply Geographic Information System (GIS) software, and other experts to map the data that the CrisisSignal apps collect and provide it to the public as part of the World Bank Geonode system. This is the first uptake of CrisisSignal at scale, and potentially an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the communities that have been most affected by the disease.
Why does mobile matter?
The humanitarian sector is evolving to harness the power of technology in emergency response situations. The Red Cross defines humanitarian technology as ‘the use and new applications of technology to support efforts at improving access to and quality of prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and rebuilding efforts’. Communications are a necessity in the aftermath of disasters and therefore a key humanitarian technology. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas’ i.e. communicate, ‘through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Humanitarian and aid organizations can work to ensure this human right through making communications a top priority.
Two-way mobile phone communications can help victims of disasters by ensuring that local communities remain in contact. Authorities can send messages notifying people of danger. There are also psychological benefits associated with keeping in touch. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a campaign to send SMS alerts to warn Haitians of preventable diseases, such as cholera, weather warnings and directions for finding help. Feedback from several participants of the program said the SMS made them ‘feel cared for’.
Communities affected by disaster can also communicate useful information, and should be empowered to engage with the aid effort as a whole. For example, Al-Jazeera established a program called Somalia Speaks in 2011, using mobile phones to send and receive SMS on how people were being affected by the conflict. Mobile users also take to social media to communicate, such as in Syria where YouTube has been used to inform the international community of what is happening in conflict zones. Mobiles allow for family members to keep in touch at home and abroad, and enable practical actions such as the transfer of cash via mobile money from the diaspora.
Data and Maps
Data collected actively or passively from mobile usage can also contribute to emergency response efforts. For example, research teams predicted population displacement using call records after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Movement of populations is common after disasters such as earthquakes, which makes it difficult for relief organizations to deliver the necessary aid. Data from mobile phones has also been combined with maps following disasters, a process known as ‘crisis mapping’, just as CrisisSignal does. For example, maps of tweets were used during Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines in 2012 to provide data to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) so they could assess the extent of the damage and plan accordingly. Ushahidi, meaning “testimony” in Swahili, was originally established to crowdsource data and map the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. Ushahidi partnered with Tufts University after the 2010 Haiti earthquake to crowdsource SMS and social media mentions to plot events to maps, which, according to the US Marine Corps saved hundreds of lives.
How CrisisSignal fits in
The power of mobile phones to contribute to disaster preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery is dependent upon connectivity. The data that will be collected through CrisisSignal has an impact both in terms of the immediate response as well as intermediate, and longer-term reconstruction and disaster preparedness actions.
After a disaster, communications infrastructure is often damaged and cell sites may be down. Roads might be blocked, making it impossible for vehicles carrying telecommunications reconstruction equipment to reach these damaged sites. As more and more people use their phones to check on friends and family and take to social media, networks may become overloaded and fail. By getting CrisisSignal on phones in the disaster affected area fast, the state of connectivity can be learned quickly in-real time so that decisions on appropriate relief efforts can be made and resources diverted to the most efficient use. Immediately following a disaster this could involve learning where to place limited supplies of temporary cell tower infrastructure such as Vodafone’s Instant Network of Base Transceiver Stations, Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) portable terminals, or Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs).
After the initial immediate response to a disaster, humanitarian organizations may wish to gather data using mobiles to further assist in the relief effort. For example, applications and tools such as the Open Data Kit (ODK), KoBoToolbox, Commcare, Premise, Magpi, NOMAD, and FrontlineSMS, can be used to track aid efforts, population displacement, market information and survey data. The network coverage information gathered by CrisisSignal lets aid organizations know where they can roll these efforts out. In particular, some of these require a data connection while others simply require voice or SMS. Since CrisisSignal maps the connection type, organizations will know what tools can be used where.
In the longer term as efforts move to reconstruction and preparedness, CrisisSignal can play a role in understanding how to build out cell tower structures and rebuilding damaged infrastructure. Countries affected by disasters may not have national coverage even before the emergency, and it is important to prepare for the long-term reconstruction of affected regions rather than just focusing on immediate fixes of towers in neighbourhoods that previously had coverage. Mapping out the country’s coverage can allow for this considered build out to take place, so that once the aid agencies leave a more resilient infrastructure remains.
CrisisSignal data will be collected from any phone with the app, whether it is someone based locally affected by the disaster, or a visiting aid worker. Education and communication ahead of disasters, such as raising awareness of the app locally so that it is installed on people’s phones ahead of time, and partnering with organizations that can distribute phones or notify aid workers to download them, will also allow for data to be collected quickly. This will speed up the time it takes to gain knowledge of the networks to roll out immediate relief efforts.
OpenSignal will be monitoring the data collected by CrisisSignal in West Africa, and will share the maps with the public and aid agencies operating in the region. As this is the biggest rollout of the app so far, we’ll be on hand to make bug fixes, answer questions and support the community of users. Most of this will take place on Google Play but also on the dedicated forum page http://opensignal.com/blog/forums/forum/crisissignal/. We will continue to learn from and share our data with the many organizations working in mobile disaster response, such as the GSMA Disaster Response team, UN OCHA and their Humanitarian Data Exchange, the Communicating with Disasters and Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and others. We have a lot to learn about how CrisisSignal can be used to facilitate emergency response, and we can use this knowledge to improve the app and data analysis in West Africa, and future disaster afflicted regions.