Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Haiti Recovery Highlights Role of Mobile Technology and Electronic Money in Disaster Relief

Posted on | January 12, 2011 | No Comments

The level of horror and devastation experienced by Haiti a year ago today when it was hit with an earthquake of 7.0 on the Richter scale is beyond comprehension. Over 200,000 people were killed with another 300,000 injured. Some 2.3 million people were left temporarily or permanently homeless. The recovery process, while slow and ongoing, has shown that mobile technologies can play a surprisingly positive role in the disaster relief effort and suggests lessons for future response programs.

I know a lot of people who contributed to the relief situation in Haiti as did as our family via a text message that charged us $10 on my monthly Verizon phone bill. It was quick and relatively painless on our part and probably for many others. In ten days Americans pledged more than $30 million to the Haiti effort. You can still text ‘Red Cross’ to 90999 to aid relief efforts in that devastated country or text the word “HAITI” to 20222 to donate $10 to the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund (or “QUAKE” to the same number to donate $10 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund).

Although important, relief attempts face perennial problems. Logistics involved in determining and gathering medical supplies, food, water, and shelter are extremely complex. Getting the relief to people in need without damage, hijacking, and in a timely manner has always been tricky. Infusions of free goods also run the risk of hurting the local economy as important commodities are shipped and given away, disrupting the local economy and devastating merchants who probably had their immediate inventory stripped away by damage, looting, or just plain charity to their community.

But that doesn’t mean analysis and innovative ideas can’t provide insights and some solutions to their predicament and other disasters requiring relief. One example is the increasing role of the mobile phone and another is the importance of money, both of which are becoming increasingly connected. These are highlighted in the video produced by Highest Common Denominator Media Group that was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation‘s Financial Services for the Poor initiative.

The earthquake delivered a severe blow to the island nation, devastating its economic development and destroying much of its infrastructure. An exception was the cellular telephone system that survived the earthquake and was actually credited for saving a number of lives as people trapped under rubble were able to call for help. The banking system and its ATM networks did not fare as well, denying people additional cash from their accounts. Mobile money using digital wallet technologies have been used to bypass the traditional banking system and its location-based ATM technology, providing payment options with only the use of the wireless environment. With mobile phones, movements of large amounts of cash can be avoided and crime is reduced. Funds donated for relief can sometimes be transferred right into a merchant’s or victim’s account or to a relief agency needing to purchase immediate supplies.

They are no panacea, but mobile technologies can be helpful in the right situations. Mobile phones are increasingly ubiquitous, especially in developing countries that have “leapfrogged” the traditional land-based telephone system. But in emergencies they can be distributed quickly, even dropped in by air if needed. Short Messaging Service or SMS text messaging has been used to share information about where to get food supplies, take showers, or get medical aid. To help overcome language problems in Haiti, FrontlineSMS gathered hundreds of Creole-speaking volunteers through Facebook and Twitter from the Haitian community dispersed around the world to translate thousands of text messages a day. In the aftermath of the quake, they created a medical reporting system to track diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis.

Thomson Reuters Foundation had just completed testing its new Emergency Information Service (EIS) as part of its Alertnet humanitarian new site and flew in a team to implement its communication system that could deliver “practical and actionable” information. Using the SMS address 4636, the EIS facilitated much of the information that was useful to the local population: available hospital services, blood donor requests, a missing person directory, employment opportunities and health advice such as how to sanitize water and monitor a sick child’s condition.

While texting and social media services raise questions about privacy and a world increasingly dependent on technology, their use in situations like these save lives, connect desperate people, and inform friends and relatives around the world of the status of people in these disaster zones. That is a valuable use of the mobile technology.




AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is the Professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He also taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii during the 1990s.


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