Haiyan: If #CommIsAid, We’ve Got a Scope Problem.

“…the effective, timely deployment of telecommunication resources and that rapid, efficient, accurate and truthful information flows are essential to reducing loss of life, human suffering and damage to property and the environment caused by disasters” – The Tampere Convention

As I write this, I’ve recently just returned from the Philippines where I and many of my colleagues were deployed to assist humanitarian relief operations by deploying various forms of communications.  Our team and many others from around the world were in pretty harsh post-disaster environments, and setting up the necessary communications that are required for any effective, modern disaster relief operation.  The Haitian earthquake of 2010 was the first really good example of a “data driven” (rather than “radio driven”) communications response.  And the need for more internet connectivity in the aftermath of a disaster has only gotten stronger since then.   After a major disaster, it’s not uncommon to see numerous VSAT satellite dishes spring up like mushrooms after a good rain.

And like I said, the work that these teams have completed is impressive.  Recently, the homepage of the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster had a story about how 2500+ humanitarian workers have used the emergency Wifi.  Most of the major disaster relief operations have some form of Internet connectivity – even if that’s something as simple as a BGAN.

One of the GATR sat dishes we deployed after Super Typhoon Haiyan.
One of the GATR sat dishes we deployed after Super Typhoon Haiyan.

And for all that, we have a huge problem.

In the 2013 UN OCHA report, Humanitarianism In The Network Age it is argued (correctly, I think) that information is a basic need to those affected by a crisis, not just the crisis responders themselves:

information as a basic need requires a reassessment of what information is for. Instead of seeing it primarily as a tool for agencies to decide how to help people, it must be understood as a product, or service, to help affected communities determine their own priorities.

The CDAC Network has been promoting this notion through the Twitter hashtag #commisaid.

The vision of emergency communications is succinctly summed up in that one hashtag: communications is a vital resource for the survivors of catastrophe, right along security, shelter, hygiene, medical care and food.

If you accept this notion, the international technology community has a huge problem.

If you look at the United Nations Cluster System something becomes very clear quickly:  the vast majority of the clusters have the mandate to deliver goods and services ultimately to those who have been affected by the crisis.  The Nutrition cluster is there to make sure people don’t starve, for example  – – it delivers food at scale to thousands, perhaps millions of people depending on the nature of the event.  But the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster  is different.  It’s mission is limited to “the humanitarian community” (which is UN-codespeak for the UN agencies such as WFP, UNICEF, etc. and certain BINGOs “big NGOs” such as the ICRC):

To provide timely, predictable and effective Information Communications Technology services to support humanitarian community in carrying out their work efficiently, effectively and safely.

Excluded from this mandate is the idea of providing communications services to countless desperate people who would love to communicate with their families, with the resources they need to restore their lives, and to the outside world more generally to tell their story.  We (the collective “we”) are failing to adapt to the new reality.  If we truly believe that communications is a form of aid, we are utterly failing to deliver that aid!  We are totally content to deploy a handful of satellite dishes, a few Wifi access points, and provide connectivity to aid workers.  But what about *everyone else* outside of the perimeter?  What about the public?  Who will speak for them?  Who will restore to them the ability to speak for themselves?

This is a very tricky question.

Telecommunications services: Internet service, POTS telephony, mobile phone telephony are all regulated and vary greatly in quality and penetration from country to country.  The regulatory hurdles are significant, and let’s not even start talking about logistics!  The humanitarian actors have traditionally been reluctant to engage with the private sector (who invariably owns and controls the pre-crisis telecommunications infrastructure).  The lines get very blurry when you start introducing organizations who have a profit motive and organizations who have a humanitarian objective.  These are big challenges, but those challenges don’t overshadow the fundamental truth:

a wrecked mobile phone tower in Guiuan, Eastern Samar after Super Typhoon Haiyan.  Is this a private sector problem?  A humanitarian problem?  Both.
A wrecked mobile phone tower in Guiuan, Eastern Samar after Super Typhoon Haiyan. Is this a private sector problem? A humanitarian problem? Both!

The best way to deliver humanitarian communications to a community at scale is to help restore the pre-crisis communications infrastructure.

During Super Typhoon Haiyan, we saw the loss of the mobile phone telecommunications infrastructure throughout our work in Eastern Samar and Leyte.  Millions of people were walking around with mobile phones that had no service.  They already had end user devices they were familiar with (even in the poorest or most rural parts of the world, seemingly everyone has a mobile, right?) — so in one sense, accomplishing the mission of delivering humanitarian communications is much easier: you don’t have to touch millions of individuals in order to help them.  You “just” need to get their phones back online.

A Tale of Two Refugee Camps

Two years ago, our team at work participated in a project with NetHope, Inveneo, WFP and Microsoft to create DadaabNet to connect up the humanitarian aid agencies operating at the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.  You can get a sense of the camp from these photos.  Prior to the deployment of this network, the state of communications at this camp was extremely limited.  VHF radios, a small number of satphones, and no mobile phone coverage.  After this project concluded, the humanitarian aid agencies were clearly in a better state of communications, but the vast majority of the 500,000 people in that camp are still without communications.

Contrast this with a much newer camp, the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan.  When the camp was first opened in 2012, it started taking in refugees from the civil war in nearby Syria at a rapid rate.  But Zaatari is actually served by at least two GSM/3G mobile phone carriers!  Not only are the humanitarian staff able to communicate with traditional handsets, but many of the refugees are able to use their mobiles as well.  The infrastructure could be better (one could always have more coverage and more bandwidth, natch!) but the situation there is vastly different than that which we found in Dadaab.

Service providers make all the difference.

A Call To Action

The humanitarian community, and the ETC in particular, needs to establish better working relationships between itself and the humanitarian actors it represents, and organizations representing the carriers (such as the GSMA).  Service providers must become a stakeholder in humanitarian response – ISPs, traditional telephony, satellite providers, mobile phone carriers.  Engagement protocols need to be developed… maybe that next UN flight might be best carrying a phone switch rather than a thousand kilos of Wifi access points!  It might help more people with a better service.

In addition to the carriers, equipment vendors need to become stakeholders in humanitarian response.  This might be easier than one might think since several of them (Ericsson and Cisco) are already heavily involved in humanitarian response — it’s logical to start with those who are already part of the conversation.   How do we ensure that the equipment needed to create communications at scale gets released, imported and transported to the locations where it can best be put to use?

There are challenges in all of this:  competitive challenges (can you help one carrier without helping another?), the division between humanitarian action and disruption to the competitive marketplace, and regulations of all sorts.  But we must begin to transform how we do technology response to consider the bigger picture

If communications is truly a form of aid, we have no other choice.

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6 thoughts on “Haiyan: If #CommIsAid, We’ve Got a Scope Problem.

  1. I totally agree with you on the fact that we need to restore communication with the affected communities. It is essential in order to create the feedback loops that the HINA report discusses. I also agree that we need to rely much more on the critical infrastructure that exists. This we did see happen positively in the Philippines response where a large portion of the humanitarian community in Tacloban switched to the existing fiber network from PLDT within a couple of weeks of the typhoon passing, rather than keep using the satellite dishes that they had used until then. This is similar to what NetHope did in Haiti where its long-range WiFi network originally leveraged VSAT connections, but then switched to local ISPs as soon as their infrastructure came back up.

    In my experience the issues is however that there is lot of resistance from the private sector communication industry (aka mobile operators) against any involvement by anybody else in helping restore their services. Even in the US, the mobile providers have traditionally “fought” against anybody else providing temporarily services while they restore their networks. Same applied in the Philippines where the providers saw some response agencies as competition instead of potential collaborators.

    Another major issue is willingness to share information and them often providing not so accurate information. A leading provider during Haiyan for example announced 100% restoration in all areas, while in many areas, you could not make phone calls, text messages did not go through and data services were nowhere to be found using their network.

    In order to change this, we must bring together these two sectors and establish the trust and understanding required to move things forward. We must have the common goal of helping those affected, not just making “marketing claims”. The humanitarian community does not want to be in the business of operating networks, we want to leverage existing infrastructure everywhere it is possible.

    I also want to correct your information about Dadaab. There are data services provided through the mobile network there. In fact the increased bandwidth brought in by DadaabNet also improved the data services on the mobile networks. The main reason for that was that the data providers for the humanitarian organizations in Dadaab were the mobile operators (Orange & SafariCom). Instead of relying on satellite connectivity, the humanitarian organizations worked with the mobile providers to get more bandwidth into this remote area in northern Kenya. The mobile operators saw the possibility of getting additional customers in that remote area. That then led to them being able to invest in the infrastructure improvements that enabled better mobile network data services for the refugees.

    This collaboration with the mobile providers in Kenya, can be a model for us to follow. By going directly to the leadership of those providers, NetHope was able to explain to them and get buy-in from them of the concept of collaborative effort that would benefit everyone, in particular those affected, the refugees. Creating a win-win approach for everyone is essential to achieve the common good. Helping those in need is not a competition of who can claim connectivity restored where or getting the most PR. It is a collaborative effort, where competition needs to be put aside, where marketing needs to be left out, and where everyone works side by side in getting assistance to those in need because they are the ones suffering and who we can help, not our organizational or corporate egos.

    1. Gisli –

      Information sharing and trust are going to be cornerstones of any such effort. You cited Tacloban where the humanitarian aid agencies were able to move off VSATs once the local ISP was able to come online. This is as it should be – VSATs are inherently the transport of last resort. Nobody really wants to be on them! But what I’m arguing in favor of is the idea that the humanitarian community has an interest in finding out what PLDT (or another ISP) might need in order to restore that communications. What is needed before that service is restored? Are there ways that the humanitarian aid agencies can facilitate that restoration — “help us help you”?

      I’m not saying that WFP needs to understand how a GSM network or BGP works. The knowledge of how carrier-class infrastructure works is pretty specialized, and I wouldn’t expect someone to understand what the guts of an Evolved Packet Core for LTE entail who wasn’t already involved in such infrastructures. But perhaps there are areas of easy wins – logistics happens to be one I can think of. Can the aid community provide fuel to a carrier’s generator so that the cell tower can come up? Can an aid flight carry equipment into the disaster zone to facilitate central office restoration?

      Information sharing has been a challenge in every tech response I’ve been a part of. You rightly point out that many, perhaps most of the carriers consider their network and its status to be a trade secret, and disclosure would be harmful. To that, I would state that there are already forums where competitors in the marketplace can come together to discuss issues of common interest… it’s the Internet. The various IETF working groups may have workable models for conversations of this sort. Now if we can only get these parties to understand their mutual interest….

      Also, thanks for the correction on Dadaab!

  2. Hi Rakesh,

    As you’ve mentioned, traditionally the humanitarian community has been hesitant to engage with the private sector. Bad experiences, reluctance to share information and outright distrust have all been blamed for this hesitation but moving forward, these issues are being overcome.

    At a panel discussion held at the Aid and International Development Forum (AIDF) in 2012* (with follow up in 2013**), a panel of UN, NGO, private sector and government representatives addressed this issue and came up with a few key outcomes, such as:
    • Commercial agreements and humanitarian partnerships cannot be mixed;
    • Technologies from the developed world cannot always be applied in a humanitarian context;
    • The time to start working together is between emergencies, not at the onset;
    • Emergency response needs to be predictable; commitment for joint response must be assured for all disaster operations, especially for complex emergencies, not just the high-profile ones.

    These principles have been successfully applied to partnerships between private and humanitarian organisations – to provide effective services to emergency responders – but as the need to provide affected populations with information services becomes more demanding, similar challenges are again faced. How does the humanitarian community partner with private sector organisations to provide affected populations with communications while also protecting their privacy and security?

    This topic has been addressed recently in a blog post on the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) website: http://www.cdacnetwork.org/public/news/blog-technology-humanitarian-response-lessons-we%E2%80%99re-learning

    It will be very interesting to see how this discussion – and hopefully action – evolves this year.

    *2012: http://www.aidforumonline.org/news/another_tool_in_the_toolbox/
    **2013: http://www.aidforumonline.org/news/moving_forwars_with_technology/

    1. Mariko –

      I’m glad to hear that this has been at least acknowledged as an issue. The pervasive deployment of communications tech in even the most remote parts of the world means that any future crisis anywhere will require communications not just as command and control for humanitarian responders, but as the kind of aid we’ve been advocating for – something that the victims/survivors of the event deserve to have restored to them, same as food, security and shelter.

      I know that this shift in the concept of operations for the humanitarian communications community is non-trivial, and it will continue to evolve. But we have to figure this out, or the technology and the expectations of society will force our hands, in which case we will be completely reactive. Thanks for writing.

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