Natural disasters are on the rise. Reported incidents have more than doubled since 1980, and in 2010 alone, the combined impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other calamities forced 42 million people to flee their homes.
Thankfully, advances in mobile communications have spread to all corners of the globe, providing the victims of disasters much easier contact with relief workers, and each other.
“Mobile technologies can be used for all aspects of disaster relief operations,” says Lalana Kagal, a research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.
The toolkit for disaster relief keeps growing. Battery-powered modems such as BRCK, a Kickstarter-funded model currently in its first run of production, allow workers and victims to seamlessly switch between ethernet, Wi-Fi and mobile networks. Telecom companies are working with the Red Cross to distribute text alerts to all phones within a disaster area — a capability that’s been adopted by the National Weather Service to inform Americans of flood warnings and other weather-related reports.
Other organizations such as Relief Labs International are developing mobile Web services to coordinate the flow of aid supplies into disaster zones. And researchers in Kagal’s lab at MIT are developing a platform to help people build apps that can help them monitor news feeds, connect with relief workers, and broadcast alerts — even if they have very limited computer programming skills.
Kagal says these apps could notify users of blocked roads or floods, or stream relevant information from government officials and social media.
These advances are leaps and bounds ahead of technology used only a few years ago. Take Hurricane Katrina, for example. Those rescue efforts were inhibited by limited access to satellite networks, too few mobile cell towers and extensive damage to the towers that were active, according to a report by the Army National Guard.
Fast-forward to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. At the time, roughly 85% of Haitian households had access to mobile phones, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace. There was extensive network congestion immediately following the earthquake, but the International Red Cross worked with local telecom operators to develop a targeted SMS communications system — an effort that saved lives, according to the Red Cross.
Most important, though, the Haiti disaster highlighted the importance of satellite backup networks, which are not dependent on terrestrial cell towers to broadcast signals. Thus, they are not vulnerable to geological or meteorological phenomena like earthquakes and hurricanes.
Darrell West, director of the center for technology innovation at the Brookings Institution, argues that backups for satellite communications should become a matter of public policy, especially as more and more people come online.
It’s been estimated, most famously in a book by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, that the adoption of smartphones in the developing world will bring some 5 billion people online. This will fundamentally change the nature and culture of the Internet, but it will also require a major increase in the capacity of mobile networks.
Accordingly, there are calls to increase the wireless frequency spectrum, which is sort of like the width of a pipe in a plumbing system. A larger spectrum means more data can flow through it.
“There’s a big need for more spectrum,” West adds, “because the demand for mobile spectrum is outpacing the available supply.
“We need to make sure that there are strong backups because mobile has become integral to people’s lives, and in a time of disaster sometimes it’s their only lifeline to the outside world.”
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