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Published on May 10th, 2017 | by EJC


Apps for Relief: Focus on Latin America

Latin American countries are exposed to natural disasters that can lead to catastrophic situations; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, torrential rains and floods are just a few examples of the type of hazards that caused unmeasurable damages to the region. In the time of crisis, technology plays a fundamental role in disaster management and risk reduction. However, in the context of disaster communication, while technology can help support disaster victims and the rest of the world to understand what’s happening on the ground, there are questions around accessibility and accuracy of information the tools provide. Nevertheless, some examples show that technology can help the disaster victims, and especially in countries like Ecuador, Peru and Mexico, many attempts were made to develop mobile apps for better information communication during emergency situations.

On April 16 2016, Ecuador suffered a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, leaving a death toll of  668 people. Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and other social media channels, became important sources of information during this time. Citizens used their smartphones during this event in every possible way to find and help others. Companies and entrepreneurs went a step further and developed mobile apps to contribute in the efforts of giving immediate response to people in need. That’s when the app Yoveoveo, added new features to their platform to gather information and generate immediate action plans for people in need during the earthquake. Initially created as a community app for people to report, propose and solve problems happening in the city, it was mainly used to report where help was needed in the affected areas during the 2016 earthquake. Other initiatives were also created, such as Ayuda Ecuador which allowed people to request help in the affected zones or Terremoto Ecuador which used the Open Street Map technology to draw a digital map of the country with real time information to geo-localise emergencies.

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The tragic event that occurred in Ecuador, created awareness in other countries where they saw the need to develop new technological tools that would effectively work during natural disasters. As it usually happens after any emergency situation, there is an immediate need for people to know where their family and friends are. However, this becomes hard when telephone networks collapse and there’s no other way of communication, just as it happened in Ecuador.

One month after the earthquake in Ecuador occurred, a Peruvian cement company decided to develop the app Señal de vida (Signal of Life), as an alternative mobile communication channel for cell phones, even when there is no access to internet networks. The app, which was created to continue with their idea of contributing to the well-being of society and the construction sector, is available for anyone with Android or iOS devices and the only requirement to use it is to have an email address or a Facebook account. Once the app is installed, the user has to select a maximum of ten contacts who will need to download the app on their phones. Every six minutes, the app monitors and tracks the geo-location of all members, keeping their location hidden at all times. When a quake of more than 4.5 on the scale of Richter occurs, the app automatically unblocks the information and shows all the people’s location on a map.

The app was released in Peru and can be used from any part of the world. While it may certainly help people find their families and friends, it could also be used by rescuers. Jose Luis de las Casas, a firefighter who was part of the group of the Peruvian rescue team that travelled to Ecuador, mentions that having a tool that gets them closer to the victims, could be of valuable help.

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Just like Ecuador and Peru, Mexico is also a country prone to quakes and other disasters. Because of this, the country has developed various technologies and apps to warn and help people during unfortuitous events. Such is the case of the Mexican company SkyAlert, which offers a free app for users that alerts them in the case of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tropical storms and soon to inform about meteorological events. SkyAlert has its own network of sensors that can warn people in advance, once the earthquake has been detected at the epicentre.

Its goal is to inform and provide valuable information before, during and after a natural disaster. SkyAlert also uses data that is collected with special devices that can be installed in offices, stores and homes, to give accurate and real time information and alerts.

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While this type of technology is extremely useful, problems, mistakes and misinformation may sometimes occur. In July 2014, controversy arose around SkyAlert when it issued a false alarm, warning people of a “strong earthquake” in Mexico City. As a result, people evacuated buildings and became worried until they found out it was a false alarm. SkyAlert claimed that it had misinterpreted a message it had received from Mexico’s official seismic alert, and offered an apology to the citizens. Naturally, people were outraged and brought the subject to social media, criticising the company. However, the company has moved on with the issue, improving their technology and remain being as one of the most used apps in Mexico.

Natural disasters often come at the least expected time and technology has proven to be essential when it comes to reducing the impact of such events. The use of mobile apps have shown to be effective and it has given developers new opportunities to improve and help disaster-affected communities. Nonetheless, the need of accuracy around information and data collection is the key, that will not only help communities but also governments to create more effective crisis preparedness and management plans and be ready when emergency situations occur.

About the Author:

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David Novoa Romero is currently a Media Culture Master’s student at Maastricht University and an intern at the European Journalism Centre. He originally comes from Ecuador, where he studied Social Communication with a focus on Journalism. Before moving to the Netherlands, he gained experience in online media, television and most recently, he worked as a content creator and a social media strategist.

Image: World Bank

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