Mobile spells relief in Palestine

Whether you’re a foreign aid worker or a local community member–and whether you’re in Iraq or Guatemala—crisis events often look the same: High levels of confusion and chaos, damaged roads, little electricity or running water, Internet and phone lines out of service. And, above all, a lack of good access to information despite a real need for accurate facts and figures.

At Souktel, the Middle East’s first mobile phone crisis response service, we know this reality all too well. Our main office is in Ramallah, Palestine—a region that’s been hard-hit by conflict for years.

At the same time, though, our part of the world (like much of the South) has some key advantages that allow us to rebuild quickly after emergencies. First, most families in the Middle East now own a mobile phone—and our mobile phone networks are durable enough to keep working during floods, armed clashes, or protests. Secondly, mobile phones are much cheaper to use than “land lines” or the Internet, making them a cost-effective way to get information to and from large numbers of people, quickly and easily.

Since 2006, Souktel has leveraged the growing popularity of mobile phones to help NGOs respond to crises more effectively—by developing and running phone-based software for the aid sector. We offer two main software services: AidLink Alerts let agencies send custom SMS messages to thousands of community members or staff from an ordinary mobile phone. AidLink surveys let agencies carry out fast SMS-based polling, monitoring, and field data collection, with results viewable instantly for quick decision-making. We provide these services to over 20 leading aid providers, from UN-OCHA to the Red Cross, and we work in crisis zones from Somalia to Iraq. Our technology is simple, needs no special “hardware” beyond a basic mobile phone, and can be managed from multiple locations without Internet access.

When we get a midnight call (or SMS) from an aid agency asking for our help, we know the news usually isn’t good. But we’re always willing to deploy our technology immediately if it can help our partners save lives. Just over a year ago, in late 2008, this was exactly what happened. As conflict erupted in Gaza, several of our U.S.-based aid agency partners phoned us to asking for help reaching their staff and beneficiaries, who were scattered across the 40 kilometer-long Strip. “It’s been extremely hard for us to contact our own staff in Gaza, let alone the communities we serve,” explained Ben Granby, then Program Manager at US-based NGO Relief International. “And if we can’t get in touch with them, we don’t know what scale and scope of aid they need”.

As the fighting worsened, Souktel moved quickly to help Relief International and other aid providers set up cell phone-based data collection and alert systems. We showed each agency how to create ‘groups’ of local phone numbers using our simple software. Then, agencies could send out news alerts from their phones—or a secure Web site—to hundreds of groups, each with thousands of members. The Red Cross/Red Crescent immediately created an alert group for each blood type and added thousands of registered blood donors’ numbers to every group. In one day, Red Crescent staff sent alerts to 2,000 Type O donors—instructing them to give blood immediately at their nearest clinic. More than 500 donors flooded hospitals in the first two hours after the messages were sent. CHF International, the largest distributor of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) food aid in the Gaza Strip, used the technology to inform over 11,000 families where they could get emergency baskets of cooking supplies, soap and shampoo.

Meanwhile, our team also showed agency partners how to create short ‘SMS Surveys’: Series of questions that could be sent in sequence, via text message, to Gazan families’ phones. Relief International wanted to know how much food each family had left in their homes and what was needed urgently. We helped them send this question by SMS–and through the help of field workers, hundreds of responses were texted back from households across Gaza, with all results going into a central database that agency staff could check online.

As we reflect on the Gaza crisis response a year later, we believe that mobile technology truly helped residents and aid workers get key information exactly when they needed it. Phone-based software services could be launched quickly, were easy and cheap to use, and their reach was broad. National mobile networks were also willing to help out by providing free messages, and young Gazans pitched in by sharing their cell phone savvy with their parents, so that whole families could benefit from the medium that local adults often call “the children’s toy.”  In short, then, mobile technology proved to be a real catalyst for post-conflict rebuilding—and a solution that can be (and is) applicable to other parts of the world.

However, we’ve also faced some real challenges in delivering mobile services in crisis zones: Some families—and young women in particular—are reluctant to share data via cell phone. Some government officials and NGO partners have doubted, publicly, that a device used to send pictures and jokes to friends can be relied on to save lives. In each case, Souktel has worked with our partners to demonstrate our software transparently and to involve local users in all aspects of its development. We hope that these efforts will turn current skeptics into future ambassadors for mobile technology.

For aid agencies, the toughest work always lies ahead.  When today’s crisis is wrapping up, tomorrow’s crisis is just beginning. However, we believe that cellular phones are changing the landscape of crisis response, and dramatically improving NGOs’ ability to help communities—and communities’ ability to help themselves. While emergencies are always likely to be a part of life in the South, small devices like mobiles can give a huge boost to our capacity for crisis response.