Girl looking at mobile cinema poster

Girl looking at mobile cinema poster
© Sharon Reader/BRC

In the time it takes to send a text, the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 destroyed an entire city. In a high-tech world where we can find out about a global disaster minutes after it has happened, aid agencies are increasingly asking how they can use technology to communicate with those affected.

A mobile phone or solar powered radio may not seem the most obvious lifesaver – but, used in the right way, they are fast becoming one of the most effective ways to help communities caught in a crisis. I went to find out more at a recent Overseas Development Institute event, which presented research by Info as Aid on using communication technology in emergency response.

Info as Aid is an organisation set up by BBC Media action and Internews to improve the flow of information to people affected by an emergency thereby raising the quality of the humanitarian response. Their research shows that people in vulnerable communities can take better control of their situation when they have communication tools. From using solar powered mobile phones to organise food distribution, to farmers finding out the latest market prices via text message – for isolated communities, these tools are a lifeline to the outside world.

Text messaging in Haiti

The Red Cross first began using digital communications to help communities in an emergency during the Haiti earthquake. Sharon Reader, Red Cross beneficiary communications delegate, explained how certain gadgets make it easier to reach whole communities with quick and vital messages.

“The biggest innovation to come out of the Haiti response was our geographical SMS system. This allowed us to send text messages directly to mobile phones within particular areas, which allowed us to target information to the people that needed to know it,” she said.

”We asked people if these messages were useful. What did they think? Did they use them? Did they bin them as junk?

“We found 96 per cent of people who received an SMS from the Red Cross said the information was useful and as a result about 90 per cent made a change to their lifestyle.”

Cholera on film

And it isn’t just short-term emergency response that is benefitting from the creative use of digital communication. For the past year, Sharon and her Red Cross colleagues have been trying unusual ways of responding to the cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone.

She explained: “This is a different type of communication to the quick, urgent messages and automated phone lines we were providing in Haiti. Cholera isn’t new in Sierra Leone and the health messages we are delivering aren’t new so we had to find interactive and engaging ways of communicating with people.”

Indeed they did. Songs, cinema, wind-up solar powered radios, SMS and a weekly radio chat show are all methods the Red Cross is using to educate communities on dealing with cholera.

A mobile cinema certainly isn’t the first emergency response tool that springs to mind. But in Sierra Leone it is successfully spreading important messages to thousands of people in a creative way. For example, a film featuring the story of one boy’s fight to save his village from cholera prompts discussion in the audience about how to prevent cholera.

Looking forward

Whether through SMS or radio, technology allows quick and vital messages to reach people in crisis, which is why the Red Cross has high hopes for its new project – a mobile phone messaging system which will communicate with over a million civilians in Sierra Leone.

In partnership with west African telephone companies, Red Cross is using a location-targeted SMS system to warn people when emergencies or outbreaks start and to give them necessary information on preventing diseases like malaria and cholera.

In Sharon’s words: “This is about giving people simple pieces of information that can be helpful in a crisis – for example, how to make oral rehydration solution, or dig a trench outside of the home to prevent flooding. No one communication channel will reach everyone, we have to keep being creative.”

Read about our new location-based text message system to save lives in Sierra Leone.