Do Mobile Phones Answer All our Prayers? Guest Blogger Paul Currion on Mobiles in Food Relief

Posted by on Sep 05, 2007

Reposted from

Do mobile phones answer all our prayers? I’ve written about the role that mobile telephony can play in humanitarian assistance quite a few times now, without really talking about it directly. The one line I have consistently taken is that cellphone coverage is not reliable or secure enough to be used as the primary means of communication in an insecure environment.

Putting that to one side for a moment, however, it’s clear that mobile telephony really is the key communications technology for the poor - and that means it should be the key communications technology for the humanitarian community.

Now, via the NGO Security Blog, I read that UNHCR and WFP have been using SMS to notify Iraqi refugees in Syria about upcoming food distributions. A total of10,000 SMS have been sent out, which should be enough to reach the 50,000 planned beneficiaries (although it’s only a drop in the ocean if Syria’s numbers are accurate and 1 .4 million Iraqi refugees have arrived in Syria).

This is fascinating stuff, and I’m interested to find out how SMS fits into their overall strategy, since it’s the first time that this has been tried. At the same time, Jonas Landgren asks:

"What could it mean if future emergency response information systems would be based on the fact that mobile phones are the only information technology in common for emergency responders across all sectors in society?"

and proceeds to draw on Swedish experiences to look at what the implications might be in terms of system design. Obviously Sweden is not Syria, but given the impact of mobile phones in the Arab World, the possibilities are certainly there for more creative use of SMS and other mobile formats.

Text messages are more likely to make it through a degraded or overloaded network than voice, especially if the system has been set up to prioritise emergency calls, and notifications for non-urgent events - such as upcoming food distributions, which will be announced in other places - are perfect for this kind of medium.

However I hope that we’re going to start to develop more creative approaches to this - perhaps using mobile phones to enable people to register for distributions remotely - and perhaps even using their unique SIM number to identify who has received a particular distribution, instead of relying solely on ID cards or other paper documents.

Photo by Matt and Polly, Creative Commons


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