Yesterday, we published the first part in our series on technology and humanitarianism, outlining the use of mobile technology in the organization Text to Change. This article is part two of the series on cellphones being used in development work.
While Text to Change focuses on a wide range of causes, Trilogy Emergency Relief Application emphasizes using cellphone technology for emergency response. It is a mobile phone application that was created through a partnership between the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Trilogy International Partners.
The need for a coordinated, targeted mobile response program became apparent after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This disaster will come up again in this series, because it was one of the first examples of technology being used in a widespread way to respond to a disaster. There was urgency to communicate with large groups of people to determine and address what their needs were.
Some agencies were granted the ability to send free text messages across Haiti’s cell networks, but this created additional problems. Organizations were often communicating similar messages, which resulted in a spam-like effect, and the extra stress on the network resulted in congestion and loss of service.
It wasn’t the use of mobile technology the Red Cross took issue with. It wanted to continue to work with this platform because it reaches wide groups of people and because mobile networks can be quickly repaired after a natural disaster. It also puts minimal stress on a network when used properly.
To address this, TERA allows messages to be geographically targeted. This reduces the amount of unnecessary messages, avoiding a blanket spam of all cellphones and creating less network congestion. It does so by identifying phones active on a network and then sending messages according to which cell site they are connected to. If messages are required to provide information about a vaccination program, for instance, it makes little sense to overwhelm medical centres by providing everyone with identical information simultaneously.
TERA is used before and during emergency situations. It can provide early warning for natural disasters – information that might be readily available in a city, but less so in a more isolated area – and provide notices during emergencies about where to find medical assistance or clean water, for example. It can the help Red Cross and Red Crescent to help people access their services during times of need. Users can opt out from receiving messages if they choose.
The text messaging system offers a form of two-way communication as well. People can respond to texts that are sent out, and these responses are then automatically scanned for keywords, which can prompt an automated response.
TERA was not available to answer questions at the time of publishing, but we are interested to know more. For example, how are relevant messages sorted out using loose keywords? Are the messages sent in local languages? What countries will the program be expanded into, and how is this determined? Does it cost people money to send text messages to TERA?
Stay tuned for updates and more information on this project.