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Published on January 16th, 2014 | by EJC

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CrisisCommunicator: A Technology For Better Disaster Co-ordination

When the Ladakh Floods struck India in 2010, communication lines were unavailable for days. Luckily, the Indian army was located nearby so a response could be co-ordinated through their radio. However, had this not been the case, it is almost certain that more causalities would have occurred.

Timing is everything in a disaster response; the difference between one and two hours can easily be a matter of life or death. Subsequently, when faced with communication black holes, it is inevitable that deadly time delays will occur.

Yet, phone coverage is almost always a huge problem in disaster situations. Over 3 million people lost phone signal during Hurricane Katrina and some areas of New Jersey afflicted by Hurricane Sandy still don’t have reliable service. Digital divides exacerbate this, with the Red Cross’ World Disasters Report finding that only 6% of people in developing countries had internet access in 2011 and only 42% had phone subscriptions.

Co-ordination during an emergency is already difficult, as volunteers, government responders and multiple relief organisations struggle to share resources and information. Add to this a lack of communication channels and it is near impossible. Ultimately, this means that victims are unable to evacuate effectively or receive appropriate relief in the wake of a crisis.

When Linkesh Diwan assisted in the Ladakh relief efforts, he noticed another challenge as well: managing refugees. Without reliable communication channels, locals had to use one laptop with a kerosene generator to document causalities. Consequently, when confronted by a huge inflow of reports, including rumours from adjacent valleys, it was difficult to provide actionable information to relatives and responders.

For Mr Diwan, a mechanical engineering graduate, these common information deficits represented a need to develop a holistic system for co-ordination that ran even when telecommunications were down.

His solution:

The CrisisCommunicator

In basic terms, the CrisisCommunicator is a tablet device that utilises digital radio technology to disseminate information between all stakeholders in a disaster situation. Users input updates – where relief is needed, localities of people, et cetera – and this information is automatically updated across all other devices. It also has a messaging feature, so that effective responses can be co-ordinated between groups. Significantly, CrisisCommunicator works even when communications are down or overloaded and, as such, it is a reliable device for synchronised disaster management.

Eventually, Mr Diwan looks to build a global unit of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) that will be equipped with CrisisCommunicators and trained in emergency communications, organisation strategies and first aid. The CERT model has been active in the United States since 1985, and works by preparing locals in teams so that rapid and organised responses can be deployed in the event of a nearby crisis. By equipping CERTs with CrisisCommunicators, Mr Diwan’s vision will allow co-ordination with neighbouring CERTs and communication between individual team members, thereby ensuring optimal situational awareness.

Like any information gathering process, individuals and organisations must ensure that reports received are verified before they act on them. According to Mr Diwan, using CERTs, or other trained individuals, to operate CrisisCommunicators will also provide an assurance that all updates are valid and accurate.

“Recently, Twitter updates have featured prominently in disasters, creating a way for people to contribute to the situational awareness.  This is great, but is limited by infrastructure, and by the trustworthiness of the information.  Therefore, the people using the CrisisCommunicator need to be trained, trustworthy communications personnel.  We can’t have, for example, someone saying that there is a life-threatening situation where there isn’t, simply because they want priority evacuation!” He said in an email interview with the European Journalism Centre.

Although not specifically designed for journalists, the device also offers a promising means for reporters to access verified information about a crisis. As Mr Diwan puts it, the CrisisCommunicator “would enable them, for example, to publish lists of refugees / wounded / deceased, and to see the progress of the response”. Journalists often act as gatekeepers of information, and so, by minimising time delays incurred from newsgathering and verification, the CrisisCommunicator could accelerate the provision of important public interest updates.

Whilst the CrisisCommunicator it is not available in the field as yet, development is underway, and Mr Diwan hopes that it will be available in the near future.

Check out this slideshare for more information:

About the Author:

photo
Madolyn Smith provides editorial support for the European Journalism Centre’s Emergency Journalism project and is a staff writer at Right Now Australia. She has a Masters in Law, Media and Journalism at the University of New South Wales, after graduating with a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences from the University of Sydney and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in how the media deals with censorship, democracy and human rights.

Photo: David Becher

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