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Ten Commandments for using SMS in natural disasters

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 2 May 2013 15:01 GMT
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A Haitian woman surrounded by children stands in front of a tent camp for people uprooted by the 2010 earthquake, outside Port-au-Prince August 24, 2012. REUTERS/Swoan Parker
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Aid workers see text messaging as a key tool in disaster communications – but what are the pitfalls and how can they be avoided?

Every second, almost a quarter of a million text messages are transmitted worldwide. That’s more than 200,000 thumbs on the send button all at once. And that number is growing every day.

With more than 5 billion cell phones in the world, it’s not surprising SMS technology is emerging as the tool of choice for disaster responders, a point that came up in our recent live debate on humanitarianism in a network age. SMS networks are often the most robust when catastrophes strike; they’re the last systems to go down and the first to come up.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, helicopter pilots used text messages to coordinate evacuations and to inform remote hospitals of incoming patients. In Haiti in 2010, SMS emerged as a viable tool to disseminate practical information to earthquake survivors and to assess their needs.

I say viable because while the Haiti experiments showed the great promise of SMS for creating two-way information flows between affected populations and relief responders, they also highlighted a number of perils – what Patrick Meier, then director of a Harvard University programme on crisis mapping, called an “information disaster in the making for communities in crisis”.

“Picture…that one organisation decides to send out regular SMS broadcasts to the disaster-affected communities to improve their situational awareness and prevent panic,” he wrote in a blog a few weeks after the earthquake.

“This is an important service during the first few days of a disaster. But imagine that this organisation does not provide a way for users receiving this information to unsubscribe or to specify exactly what type of information they would like and for which locations.

“Next suppose that three NGOs set up long codes to do the same. Now imagine that two major organisations independently set up an alerts SMS system, asking individuals to text in their location and most urgent needs.”

That’s pretty much what happened in Haiti – and the result was a lot of unrealistic expectations among survivors and headaches among responders. At the time, Meier called for an “SMS code of conduct for disaster response” for future emergencies.

Three years later, he’s almost got one. Meier now works for the non-profit Qatar Foundation. Teaming up with GSMA Disaster Response, an industry group for global mobile operators, and SMS social enterprise Souktel, the foundation has published Towards a Code of Conduct: Guidelines for the Use of SMS in Natural Disasters.

The document contains common-sense recommendations of use to aid agencies, technologists, crisis mappers, media development organisations – and anybody else interested in using SMS communications in a crisis.

I’ve taken the liberty of distilling the guidelines down to “Ten Commandments” that seem most pertinent in light of the Haiti experience and subsequent disasters:

  • Don’t launch an SMS service unless you can act on incoming information
  • Don’t raise false expectations among subscribers
  • Be good partners with mobile operators and humanitarian organisations
  • Make your SMS service simple to use
  • Make sure “competing” SMS services don’t cause confusion
  • Don’t duplicate national SMS systems
  • Allow users to “opt in” and “opt out” easily
  • Make sure messaging is consistent across different SMS services
  • Document and share “lessons learned” for future disasters
  • At all times remember the principle of “do no harm”

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