Picture this: it’s October 7, 2011, and a major hazard hits a highly vulnerable population resulting in a devastating disaster. The entire humanitarian response community mobilizes within 48 hours. Days later, the cell phone network is back up and dozens of SMS systems are activated by large and small organizations. Two or three of these systems use short codes thanks to rapid collaboration with the country’s national telecommunication companies. The other SMS systems all use long codes.
That picture concerns me, a lot. The technology community’s response to Haiti has demonstrated that using SMS to communicate with disaster affected communities can save lives, hundreds of lives. Humanitarian organizations and NGOs have all taken note and nothing will prevent them from setting up their own SMS systems in the near future. This wouldn’t worry me if coordination wasn’t already a major challenge in this space.
Let me elaborate on the above picture.
Picture further that one organization decides to send out regular SMS broadcasts to the disaster affected communities to improve their situational awareness and prevent panic. This is an important service during the first few days of a disaster. But imagine that this organization does not provide a way for users receiving this information to unsubscribe or to specify exactly what type of information they would like and for which locations. Next suppose that three NGOs set up long codes to do the same. Now imagine that two major organizations independently set up an alerts SMS system, asking individuals to text in their location and most urgent needs.
This is an information disaster in the making for communities in crisis.
So what are we going to do to prevent the above picture from turning into reality? The group Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) is probably best placed to support a coordinating role in this space. But before we even get to this, our own community should start drafting an “SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response” for ourselves. I can think of no better way to start the process by using distributed cognition (aka crowdsourcing). This blog post on lessons learned and best practices may be informative as well.
Here are a few ideas to begin with:
- Set up a complaints mechanism
- Do not duplicate existing national SMS systems
- Set up a single clearing house for all outgoing SMS broadcasts
- Ensure that SMS messages are demand driven in terms of content
- Enable receivers of Disaster SMS’s to unsubscribe and to specify alert type and location
There are likely dozens more points we could add. So please feel free to do so in the comments section below. I will then create a more structured Google Doc out of your replies and send this out for further peer reviewing.