How Mobile “Leapfrog Technology” is Aiding Disaster Relief

InVenture utilizes mobile technology to facilitate financial literacy.

Last month, after Typhoon Haiyan barreled through the Philippine Islands, communities scrambled to find ways to get help. Much of the communications infrastructure on the two hardest-hit islands was in shambles. Communities were cut off and residents had no way to connect with family members in other parts of the country or the world. The worse hit communities needed a way to organize relief efforts, but without either a landline or a mobile network, keeping aid agencies, families and other resources informed was next to impossible.

Within days, the mobile communications company Vodafone had dispatched what looked like a collection of suitcases to the hardest hit sections of the islands. Vodafone’s mobile network, broken into four containers that were compact and light enough to be carried in the back of an emergency vehicle and could be installed almost anywhere, became the devastated community’s mobile lifeline. Families could text messages out; relief agencies could connect with their rescue teams. Food shipments could be coordinated, and the arduous and painful process of rebuilding could be done with help and consultation from the outside.

For most of the Vodafone Foundations, the corporation’s charity arms, its relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan were simply business as usual. The same swift resurrection of the Philippine Islands’ mobile network took place less than a year before, after Typhoon Bopha, a category 5 typhoon, decimated the Island of Mindanao’s mobile network. The relief work of agencies like Doctors without Borders were able to benefit from real-time help from anywhere in the world as its doctors worked to save lives.

Mobile technology’s advances are part of what Fay Arjomandi calls an “ecosystem tsunami” of change that has helped transform the world. As the President and Chair of the Vodafone Americas Foundation and Global Lead of xone (Vodafone’s disruptive technology incubator), Arjomandi is well acquainted with Vodafone’s technological legacy, as well as why the mobile phone industry stands to transform our future.

“Mobile communications have personalized telephony for us,” said Arjomandi. In less than 40 years, the number of mobile subscribers throughout the world has literally exploded. There are about six billion mobile subscribers today. That number not only indicates how popular cell phones and other types of mobile communications have become, but how essential the technology is quickly becoming to our day-to-day existence, even in isolated areas where basic amenities as we know them, hardly exist.

One of the ways that Vodafone has helped increase mobile technology’s global impact is through the work of the 29 Vodafone Foundations worldwide and xone. In the US, Vodafone Americas Foundation’s annual Wireless Innovation Project highlights three top innovators in the mobile technology field that have the potential to make a decisive change in the world. (Ed note: Applications for 2014 are due February 3rd!) Through xone, developers can avail themselves of experts and services that not only reduce their production costs, but help them launch their services faster, and farther.

One Wireless Innovation Project winner for 2013, MoboSens, illustrates how a plug-in sensor can convert a simple mobile phone to a powerful, often life-saving apparatus.

Mobile drinking water sensors: MoboSens
Some 780 million people across the world live without reliable access to clean drinking water, and more than three million people die from water-related illnesses each year as a result.

The smartphone-based water sensor MoboSens helps curb those numbers.  Developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, MoboSens makes it possible for individuals or communities to track the quality of water sources cheaply and easily. Users can also share the findings through social media, making it easier to ensure that communities, travelers and the scientific community have access to current information on local water sources and potential pollutants.

ColdTrace Vaccine Monitor
Another winner of this year’s Wireless Innovation Project Award is ColdTrace, a wireless sensor that monitors essential vaccines and ensures their safety in the field. Many vaccines that are used in tropical or temperate climates must be maintained in cold storage prior to use in order for them to be effective. Equally important is its record keeping system that helps medical staff ensure that vaccines stay current and data is always available.

“[Healthcare] is a big issue in developing countries,” Arjomandi explained. “What we have been able to do is bypass setting up expensive clinics in rural areas of Africa.  A doctor can just [arrive] with a phone and a bunch of accessories that are plugged into the phone.” Healthcare workers no longer need to schedule appointments for testing in a facility that might be hundreds of miles from the patient. “They can go home to home in rural areas and do blood analysis, ear infection analysis, and remotely send it to a care hospital.” And, Arjomandi added, the receiving hospital doesn’t necessarily have to be in Africa. It may be in India, or another part of the world where expertise is on hand to analyze the results.

Sana Mobile data collection
The 2010 winner, Sana Mobile, is helping to revolutionize data collection in remote areas. Developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sana addresses a critical part of healthcare that is often difficult to attain in remote rural healthcare settings.

“Data collection is of extreme importance when you look at developing healthcare in developing countries for diagnosis and providing healthcare strategies that facilitate future funding,” Arjomandi explained. The open source platform allows healthcare workers to scan and send data that can not only help with testing and diagnosis, but helps track work progress for future grants and other funding requirements.

Texting: mobile impact in search and rescue settings

In rural areas in our own backyards, texting is now an essential system for many search and rescue teams and firefighters. Rescue teams can be mobilized in half the time it would normally take for the conventional phone tree calling system to be implemented, saving valuable minutes for search mobilization and rescue operations.

SMS and financial security

But of course, healthcare and rescue operations aren’t the only fields where mobile technology is making life-saving impact. In the financial sector, mobile banking helps people in remote areas save money, send money and pay for services that were otherwise difficult to obtain previously.

“I honestly think we are the leader in this sector helping people [who] actually need help [by] utilizing the mobile phone and mobile communications,” Arjomandi said.

In Tanzania, money can be sent to cover transportation for patients who might not be able to receive surgery care due to transportation costs. Text messaging can also be used to mobilize support networks for patients who need support services. Rural residents can handle their banking by SMS and phone services, rather than by taking and expensive bus ride to the bank hours away.

And, as many of us do today, individuals can pay bills, schedule money transfers and handle routine tasks that only 30 years ago would have seemed impossible.

Current mobile technology, as amazing as it is today, said Arjomandi, has put us “just at the tip of the iceberg” of what we may be capable of realizing in the next 30 years. “It has catalyzed innovation and provided solutions that we never imagined we could have.”

Image credit: Ami Gosali, Director of Strategy (InVenture)

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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