Dial H for Humanitarian: Guest Writer Paul Currion on mobiles in humanitarian work

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Nov 07, 2007

I interviewed Paul Currion for a research project for the UN Foundation and Vodafone Group Foundation that will be released next year. I asked him about the "state of affairs" of using mobile phones in disaster relief work and humanitarian emergencies. Veritable blogger that he is, he summarized his thoughts on his blog and gave permission to cross-post here.

"I just had an interesting conversation with Katrin Verclas of Mobileactive, who is doing some research into cellphone use in different sectors, and in the course of our discussion a few points emerged about how cellphones are being used in the humanitarian sector.

  • Cellphones are ubiquitous in the humanitarian community - everybody uses them now as the main channel of communication, particularly in country offices. The reasons are obvious: they’re extremely convenient, relatively reliable, inexpensive, and coverage is improving all the time. These are exactly the same reasons why everybody else has adopted them as well, of course.
  • So basically we’ve adopted cellphones as they’ve penetrated into the countries in which we work - a natural process of osmosis that happens at the country level. The downside of this is that I don’t think their introduction has been managed in a systematic manner in any of the organisations that I know of. Obviously country offices will set their staff up with their own phones and/or SIM cards, but precisely because it’s so easy to do so, there’s very little thought given to it except in terms of ongoing call costs.

As a result, there are a number of problems emerging in the sector.

  • The first is that reliance on cellphones creates a security risk, as I identified in the ECB Assessment. In a number of countries (for example, Sudan or Sri Lanka), cellphone networks are regularly pulled by the government on grounds of “national security”; in other countries, we have seen how cellphone networks can collapse when faced with (for example) a major earthquake (as in Pakistan in 2005).
  • The questions for NGOs are, first, whether the convenience of cellphones outweighs the risk (on balance, I would say yes) and second, what other channels are available to ensure consistent communications in the field (specifically, whether we will continue to invest in radio communications).
  • The second is that innovative uses of cellphones are few and far between. Katrin asked me for examples of cellphone use, and off the top of my head I found it difficult to point to any (particularly successful examples!). There are plenty of opportunities to use cellphones in staff tracking, logistics management, public information and so forth, but not many people taking advantage of these opportunities.
  • I suggested to Katrin that the reason for this is partly because of the way in which cellphones were introduced. Unlike satellite communications, they were easy to introduce and require no organisational technical knowledge (since all the technical work is done by external private companies). As a result, they are essentially invisible to our organisations, which means that people don’t really see them as tools for innovation, any more than they would think of a car as an opportunity in this way.
  • In addition, most innovation in this sector takes place at the field level, and there are no mechanisms for spreading these innovations through the sector. Thus a successful project in one location which uses cellphones to help beneficiaries is unlikely to be replicated in another location unless one of the staff involved in the project goes to that location.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any interesting examples. We came up with a few: WFP notifications to Iraqi refugees, sms hotlines for disaster victims in Indonesia and refugee connectivity in Uganda. There are a few organisations in this area - like the Ericsson Response Team - but it’s very hard to think of real innovation that’s taken root in the sector. There are a number of examples from other areas - for instance, human rights or citizen journalism, these kinds of things - but precious few from the humanitarian community. As regular readers of this blog already know, I tend to be a bit sceptical about the perceived impact of new technology, but if anybody has any other examples, both Katrin and myself would love to know about them."

If you know of other cases, please leave a comment!

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