Location Based Mobile Alerts for Disaster Response in Haiti

Using demand-side and supply-side economics as an analogy for the use of communication and information technology (ICT) in disaster response may yield some interesting insights. Demand-side economics (a.k.a. Keynesian economics) argues that government policies should seek to “increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment.” Supply-side economics, in contrast, argues that “overall economic well-being is maximized by lowering the barriers to producing goods and services.”

I’d like to take this analogy and apply it to the subject of text messaging in Haiti. The 4636 SMS system was set up in Haiti by the Emergency Information Service or EIS (video) with InSTEDD (video), Ushahidi (video) and the US State Department. The system allows for both demand-side and supply-side disaster response. Anyone in the country can text 4636 with their location and needs, i.e., demand-side. The system is also being used to supply some mobile phone users with important information updates, i.e., supply-side.

Both communication features are revolutionizing disaster response. Lets take the supply-side approach first. EIS together with WFP, UNICEF, IOM, the Red Cross and others are using the system to send out SMS to all ~7,500 mobile phones (the number is increasing daily) with important information updates. Here are screen shots of the latest messages sent out from the EIS system:

The supply-side approach is possible thanks to the much lower (technical and financial) barriers to disseminating this information in near real-time. Providing some beneficiaries with this information can serve to reassure them that aid is on the way and to inform them where they can access various services thus maximizing overall economic well-being.

Ushahidi takes both a demand-side and supply-side approach by using the 4636 SMS system. 4636 is used to solicit text messages from individuals in urgent need. These SMS’s are then geo-tagged in near real-time on Ushahidi’s interactive map of Haiti. In addition, Ushahidi provides a feature for users to receive alerts about specific geographic locations. As the screen shot below depicts, users can specify the location and geographical radius they want to receive information on via automated email and/or SMS alerts; i.e., supply-side.

The Ushahidi Tech Team is currently working to allow users to subscribe to specific alert categories/indicators based on the categories/indicators already being used to map the disaster and humanitarian response in Haiti. See the Ushahidi Haiti Map for the list. This will enable subscribers to receive even more targeted location based mobile alerts,  thus further improving their situational awareness, which will enable them to take more informed decisions about their disaster response activities.

Both the demand- and supply-side approaches are important. They comprise an unprecedented ability to provide location-based mobile alerts for disaster response; something not dissimilar to location based mobile advertising, i.e., targeted communication based on personal preferences and location. The next step, therefore, is to make all supply-side text messages location based when necessary. For example, the following SMS broadcast would only go to mobile phone subscribers in Port-au-Prince:

It is important that both demand- and supply-side mobile alerts be location based when needed. Otherwise, we fall prey to Seeing Like a State.

“If we imagine a state that has no reliable means of enumerating and locating its population, gauging its wealth, and mapping its land, resources, and settlements, we are imagining a state whose interventions in that society are necessarily crude.”

In “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” James Scott uses the following elegant analogy to emphasize the importance of locality.

“When a large freighter or passenger liner approaches a major port, the captain typically turns the control of his vessel over to a local pilot, who brings it into the harbor and to its berth. The same procedure is followed when the ship leaves its berth until it is safely out into the sea-lanes. This sensible procedure, designed to avoid accidents, reflects the fact that navigation on the open sea (a more “abstract” space) is the more general skill. While piloting a ship through traffic in a particular port is a highly contextual skill. We might call the art of piloting a “local and situated knowledge.”

An early lesson learned in the SMS deployment in Haiti is that more communication between the demand- and supply-side organizations need to happen. We are sharing the 4636 number,  so we are dependent on each other and need to ensure that changes to the system be up for open discussion. This lack of joint outreach has been the single most important challenge in my opinion. The captains are just not talking to the local pilots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

5 responses to “Location Based Mobile Alerts for Disaster Response in Haiti

  1. An intriguing post Patrick. Your distinction between demand and supply side response and call for greater communication between those responsible for both seems right. One observation: the supply-side examples cited are all promises – things that ‘might’ happen. This will be familiar to anyone subscribing to such services in non-disaster situations. They tend towards the speculative. Their are obvious reasons for that I suppose. The responsibility placed on individuals when sending these messages is great and errors can be catastrophic. In a rapidly changing environment it is very hard for anyone supplying advice or information (as opposed to merely describing events) to be definitive about what is a ‘fact’ or not, the consequences of misinformation so great that they err towards ever increasing caution. This is the case with SMS health advice services in ‘peace-time’ and there seems no reason to assume it would be substantively different in an emergency context. The Ushahidi approach seems sensible: neutral, more purely descriptive of actual events and situations, more flexible for subscribers to define and therefore more likely to be useful. Did the SMS service in Haiti work like such a service in the US would? Were subscribers given opportunities to opt in and out of particular aspects of the programme and given unsubscribe options? Were they informed about how the service works and who would have access to their data and for what purpose? There is little online about how end users were ‘sold’ the project – it seems absolutely critical. I will follow your further exploration of this with great interest. Thanks again.

    • Many thanks for your comment, Carla, really liked what you had to share.

      “Did the SMS service in Haiti work like such a service in the US would?”

      Which service do you mean? EIS? Ushahidi’s?

      “Were subscribers given opportunities to opt in and out of particular aspects of the programme and given unsubscribe options?”

      On the Ushahidi end, we’re working on setting all that up. Hope to have it all up and ready within 24hrs. The only way that individuals can subscribe to Ushahidi alerts is if they go online and subscribe to whatever location/alert types they want. We’re looking at how to allow individuals to do this by SMS as well. And yes, unsubscribe will certainly be an important feature. We haven’t yet promoted our Get Alerts feature with the humanitarian community cause we have been modifying it and want to get it right first.

      On EIS, my understanding is that they automatically subscribed everyone and later provided an unsubscribe feature.

      “Were they informed about how the service works and who would have access to their data and for what purpose?”

      On EIS, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve been going through local radio stations, etc. But I know for a fact that some Haitians are confused by the supply-side EIS model being coupled with the demand-side Ushahidi model. We’re working closely now to make sure we are as clear as possible to minimize confusion. On our end we continue to repeat the same message about 4636, please text in your location and urgent needs. This has been repeated on CNN, BBC, etc, also on local radio and Haitian radio + television.

  2. Thanks very much patrick. That is a really helpful response. I suspose the fact that I saw these as one and the same ‘service’ highlights the coupling problem – we tend to think of 4636 as a thing – wheresas its actually just a delivery method into many ‘things’ all of which work differently. Fascinating. There will be so much to learn from this. Keep up the amazing work and best of luck with the alerts.

  3. Pingback: Cairo, Johannesburg, Mumbai – 24 hrs Google Buzz and location-based information pops up everywhere

  4. Pingback: Haiti Crisis Mapping

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