Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which recently ravaged the Philippines, has inspired us at engageSPARK to spend even more time thinking about how to built great SMS and Voice tools that can be used for disaster awareness and disaster relief efforts. The GSMA has been brainstorming about how best to use SMS for disaster relief efforts, and in February 2013 it published a report outlining some recommended guidelines for using SMS during natural disasters.

SMS in disaster relief has primarily been used to provide information about the state of affected communities, to determine which areas are in need and what supplies aid workers can bring. Using SMS to monitor aid delivery can also improve accountability; however, this has been a notoriously difficult issue to track among disaster relief efforts.

In its report, the GSMA offers some key takeaways for both aid implementers and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). One big problem is that aid organizations and MNOs don’t have a good understanding of each other’s motivations and restrictions. Aid implementers are there to provide timely aid without the immediate requirement of future profit or sustainability.

MNOs, on the other hand, are often concerned about restoring services and returning to profitability, as natural disasters have serious consequences on their bottom line. Realizing that these two goals are different and allowing for both to occur are important for communication channels and cooperation.

Another key takeaway from the GSMA report is that these two sets of organizations need to identify a point of contact to communicate better. We saw firsthand that each government and state agency had multiple teams with no centralized point of contact during the Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda disaster, which hindered relief efforts.

In addition, some agencies acted without knowledge of each other and sent teams to the same location with the same relief goods, duplicating efforts. Without a clear point of contact, other agencies trying to provide disaster relief are hindering each other. Knowing what each other is doing, and having a point of contact who is aware of the various efforts, reduces confusion and duplicatio (i.e., waste).

While these lessons are not SMS-centric, they provide a background for the key underlying principles that organizations need to consider when implementing relief efforts. More specific to SMS programs, the GSMA recommended this code of conduct for organizations involved in relief efforts:

  1. Consider whether SMS is the most appropriate vehicle for the information you are trying to disseminate or collect.
  2. Do not launch an SMS service unless you have the ability [and capacity/resources] to act on incoming information e.g., someone asks for something and you can respond with the information, service, or service referral that they need.
  3. Consider that solid and coordinated partnerships are required to make an SMS service successful.
  4. Design with the end-user in mind. Focus on value and simplicity to beneficiaries and on user-centered design.
  5. The humanitarian principle of “Do No Harm” comes first. SMS-based services (and similar communication projects) should have this as their first and primary goal.

Other more specific guidelines for MNOs and Aid Responders are also worth a closer look if you are personally involved in this field of work. For example, you should think about security and privacy. The GSMA report was careful to note that the code of conduct was only applicable to natural disasters and not to political crises or humanitarian emergencies. Although the report did not spell it out, we believe that one of the main differences between those types of crises and natural disasters is that with natural disasters, there may be an assumption that privacy is less important.

With political and humanitarian crises, security and privacy efforts are obviously crucial. For example, revealing who sent an SMS may put lives at risk, especially if the SMS contains certain political views. While security and privacy might be less relevant for SMS programs in natural disasters, we would still caution against ignoring those issues, as unintended consequences can often arise when security is disregarded.

Overall, we found the GSMA’s recommendations to offer common sense, but difficult to implement, guidelines during times of crisis. For example, during the Typhoon Haiyan aftermath, government agencies had a difficult time pulling together organizations and coordinating efforts because of the decentralized, confusing, and overlapping structure of their efforts.

A clear lack of point of contact within each arm caused slower response times, and mobile networks not being available also increased difficulties. Disaster relief preparedness should be highlighted as a higher priority as well. Hopefully, governments and agencies will read this GSMA report and and start to create partnerships with local MNOs to work together to coordinate their efforts in preparations for future natural disasters.

Did you do any disaster relief work related to Typhoon Haiyan that involved SMS (or otherwise)? Let us know in the comments!