Program Uses Mobile Technology to Help with Crises
A nongovernmental organization has released open source software tools for collaboration and communication that let government agencies or humanitarian organizations quickly report, share, aggregate, and analyze important data via a cell phone.
This is part of the InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters) NGO's project to use mobile technology to improve governments' and humanitarian agencies' ability to respond to health problems, disasters, and other regional crises.
InSTEDD's tools provide information on disease-outbreak epidemiology and natural disasters, and help humanitarian organizations collaborate to improve the services they offer.
Many health workers are isolated by distance or terrain, potentially making communications time-consuming and difficult. Thus, the ability to use fast, simple communications technology that works with basic cell phones is valuable, according to InSTEDD president and CEO Eric Rasmussen.
The GeoChat short-message-service tool lets NGO field workers or first responders to disasters use cell phones to send information via an SMS message to the groups for which they work, government agencies, or even international bodies such as the United Nations' World Health Organization.
For example, in GeoChat's first testbed, in Cambodia, eight district health officers utilize the tool to share observations, diagnoses, and disease-outbreak epidemiology reports with a provincial hospital, which could use it to report on a rapid response team's estimated arrival times to areas with problems.
Field workers include their locations with each message, which pops up as a conversation thread on an interactive map. The messages either go directly to an NGO or to the InSTEDD website, where users with the correct passwords could pick them up.
GeoChat works via SMS because it's convenient and because, in many areas, Internet communications aren't available, according to Rasmussen.
SMS requires payment by users. InSTEDD works with the PayPal online payment system and makes it convenient for organizations by, for example, letting the groups prepay for messages so that field workers don't have to worry about such matters.
When combined with InSTEDD's Mesh4X synchronous-communication tool, users can transmit data between established applications — such as Access, Excel, GoogleEarth, MySQL, and the Oracle Database — and between devices — like laptops, smart phones, PDAs, and servers — reliably, selectively, and securely in a distributed data mesh.
InSTEDD's Riff analytics tool can help governmental agencies and humanitarian organizations examine incoming data and make decisions, Rasmussen said.
InSTEDD is helping humanitarian organizations and government agencies deploy its free tools worldwide. Beta versions are already deployed in countries such as Bangladesh, Denmark, Ghana, Tanzania, and the US.
Rasmussen said the technologies could also be used for specialized commercial software applications. InSTEDD is currently negotiating agreements with several companies.
Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org, contributed $5 million to InSTEDD through 2008 and has just started funding a three-year, $6.67 million grant.
There is a huge need to improve collaboration and communications for humanitarian relief organizations responding to natural disasters and health crises, explained Google.org director Frank Rijsberman. He said InSTEDD is perhaps the only nonprofit organization able to accomplish this by combining the necessary software-engineering skills with a deep understanding of humanitarian relief organizations.