Collaborating for Impact: Mobile Tools, Disaster Response, and Health Care Crises

Ed note: the mHealth Summit kicks off in Washington, D.C. next week.  The following item, which originally appeared in Global Health Magazine, provides a case study of how one mobile tool provided critical support following the Haiti earthquake.

When the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti at the beginning of this year, its fault lines extended far beyond the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The earthquake also exposed the shifting landscape of information-sharing in emergencies, as a number of grassroots technology groups leveraged the availability of mobile and cloud-based technologies to aggregate, translate, map and disseminate data about humanitarian needs and available resources.

Survivors of the quake recount the eerie silence, punctured only by the wails of the wounded that followed once the shaking stopped. With many of Haiti’s own first responders and the international organizations present themselves devastated in the destruction, there were precious few ambulances to scream through rubble-strewn streets and assist the tens of thousands needing urgent medical attention.

Project 4636 was one of the collaborative efforts that emerged to leverage the reach of mobile technology to provide a channel for the affected population to report urgent needs. The 4636 ‘short code’ was stood up to enable those with urgent needs to submit information via short message service (SMS), also known as text messaging. This free-to-end-user system produced a large volume of these text messages from users of Digicel and Voila, two mobile phone operators in Haiti.

As the messages poured in, over 1,000 members of the Haitian diaspora and 200 graduate students in the United States helped to process unstructured SMS data. The information was categorized, translated, geo-tagged, and provided in reports for use by first responders and relief organizations on the ground. In the first month after the quake, 80,000 messages were received and used to help direct emergency response and relief resources.

Information generated through the 4636 short code directly supported relief efforts in Haiti, resulting in survivors being pulled from collapsed structures by search and rescue teams, a woman receiving emergency obstetric care, a camp of 2,500 internally displaced persons being included in distribution routes for food and water, and a hospital receiving diesel fuel to keep its generator running.

Collaboration among the private sector, public sector, and civil society in Project 4636 was key. CrowdFlower, Digicel, Energy for Opportunity, FrontlineSMS:Medic, InSTEDD, Samasource, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, U.S. Department of State, Ushahidi and Voila each played a vital role. Other collaborators joined the effort as individuals, including members of the Haitian diasporas who worked long hours translating and processing information transmitted by SMS.

Merging ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies gave Project 4636 reach. Radio provided a trusted voice, and every radio announcement calling for “SMS to 4636 including need and location” produced large increases in the volume of text messages sent. These traditional communications platforms were matched with ‘new’ collaborative and cloud-based technologies from Twitter to Skype, email, mobile and mapping.

As the work of FrontlineSMS:Medic and other mobile-powered health programs evidences, low-cost, mobile tools can create connected health systems that help save lives both in response to natural disasters like Haiti’s earthquake, or as part of sustained health programs such as those underway in response to the HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics.

Now more than ever, we have the both the technology and the opportunity to further explore the cross-sector collaboration needed to maximize the mobilization of technology tools in humanitarian emergencies, and beyond.

Josh Nesbit is executive director of FrontlineSMS:Medic, whose mission is to use low-cost, mobile tools to create connected health systems.

Adele Waugaman is senior director of a partnership between the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation that leverages technology to support and strengthen humanitarian work worldwide.