How does ICT support disaster response?

Across the aid sector, the opinion is divided about the sort of role ICT can play in disaster response. In some organisations such as WFP, technicians are sent with the first wave of responders as experience has proven that reliable communications and power supplies are needed for the very beginning of the response. Other organisations senior managers often question why “IT” needs to be involved at all. Some of these misconceptions is often flavoured by an individual’s personal experience with an IT team at the transactional level.  Simple tasks such as setting up printers, resetting passwords and de-fluffing mice might be the only activity people might see from technicians.  

In a fast moving emergency response, the humanitarian team will need to use reliable radio, satellite and other communications to coordinate the response. The flow of information is important between the response teams and their coordinators back at HQ. For the high profile responses, media teams will need to get video footage from the frontline so that the organisation can hit the headlines with the latest report from the response teams.  

In this article, I am going to set out the increasingly important need for technology in the emergency setting and explain how the IT department has worked over the past year to build a team of emergency responders, invested in quick deploy equipment and have developed some clear standard operating procedures to define the role technicians will play in future disaster responses.  

What role does ICT play in emergencies?
When a disaster happens, the affected population may have critical needs for food, water, shelter and medical care. For children, there will be additional requirements such as child protection/ safeguarding and education. The 21st centary NGO may need to rely on a range of digital services to deliver some of the urgent aid to the affected community. Whilst bringing aid to the emergency, the responders are also required to take care of their own safety and security. In all of this activity, Technicians have a very important role to play as the technology used in an emergency setting may be wide ranging and complex.  

The immediate priority is to set up communications so that the response team can operate. Typically this will consists of portable satellite communications such as Thuraya and Iridium for voice communications and BGAN for data. As these systems are expensive to run and have limited capacity, the communications setup will be scaled up to high capacity satellite internet systems (VSAT) and where needed, radio systems can be established so that staff have at least 2 forms of communications device (Most organisations require redundant communications as part of a security policy).
Beyond the communications, the technicians are on hand to ensure that safe power suppliers are provided and that IT infrastructure is quickly established so that all of the response team can start to access internet based services.

 Within the first 48 hours of arrival, the technicians will have established the technology for the operational base from where the emergency will be managed. Beyond 48 hours, a more accurate picture starts to emerge about how large the response will be, the geographical cover and how many sites will need to be set up.  The technicians on the ground will be working closely with the wider humanitarian team to design the communications and technology for the response, build the budget and define the procurement plan.

 In addition to the infrastructure, the technicians may be involved in further technology related tasks, here are just a few examples:

·         Fleet management technology and tracking.
·         Setting up complex short range radio communication
·         Assessing power needs and then setting up power supplies
·         Implementing UAVs (drones)
·         Providing technology solutions for the communities affected by the disaster.
·         Solar energy solutions
·         Deploying IOT (Internet of things) – e.g. remote sensors etc.  

In addition to the technology design and delivery tasking, the technicians will engage other organisations such as Nethope and the Emergency Telecoms Cluster so that technology based activities on the ground can be coordinated.  

Effectively the technical specialists have knowledge and expertise to deliver the required solutions in just about any environment, even at sea!

The people

Our approach has been to build a virtual team from volunteers who are already in the existing ICT global workforce. This model is sustainable and cheaper to deliver than having a dedicated team of people on continuous standby. This way of working will bring a range of further benefits as follows:


·         As all team members have a full time role within Save the Children’s ICT team, they will already know our technology standards and will be very familiar our current ICT procedures and standards
·         Team members are based in all regions which mean that they can often get to the scene quickly.
·         Regionally based emergency responders will have more local knowledge of the technologies used in the same region, suppliers and how to manage importation of technology.
·         Language can sometimes be a barrier. Our model to use regional people means that very often they will speak local languages.  

We are developing SOPs for each region in which our local teams have a voice. We feel that the combination of our global subject matter experts in emergency response and the local knowledge of our regional teams means that we can develop solutions which are appropriate to the sort of emergencies in each region and what sort of technologies are in common use.  

Our ICT global workforce is already familiar with Save the Children standard technology (which we also use for emergency response). The existing skills needed topping up with some additional subjects such as quick deploy VSAT, communications planning and emergency response management. A programme of course were delivered in the UK, Nepal, Kenya, Panama and Sierra Leone to build these skills.

We have already procured quick deploy equipment which is now located in Nairobi and Panama City. This equipment consists of a quick deploy VSAT, wireless access points and other technologies which allows us to quickly provide fast internet access for an emergency response office for a fixed monthly price.

 The Kit
For the countries which are at risk of disaster, but do not permit the import of such technologies, we are working closely with IT teams in these places to develop local emergency response solutions. Myanmar is one such country where we would not be allowed to import our global kits, but we can procure a local solution for internal use within Myanmar.  

The kits have been designed is such a way so that they can be carried on normal commercial flights. We have tested this model twice. Firstly an actual deployment from UK to Haiti, and then later on, we tested the model again when we relocated a new system from the UK to Kenya with just one staff member!  (Using porters at the airport of course!).  

The VSAT is also complimented with a framework agreement which allows us to access a global network of satellites at preferential rates. Typically we would anticipate a fixed fee of around $5,000 per month to run a connection with no limits of the volume of data sent/received. Some people might think this to be expensive, but consider this. The BGAN internet terminal (which is small and compact) costs $5 per MB, so for $5,000 you will only get 1GB of data. For those of you with data-packages on 3G phones, you might understand why 1GB of data would be insufficient for a team of responders.  

Not all emergencies require VSAT. There might be emergencies such as drought or pandemics we might respond to. Responses might be in places where 3G cover is good. We have some technology in our kits to allow us to use 3G and 4G coverage to provide a wireless network for our teams. This technology along with a couple of wireless access points will easily fit into a medium sized peli-case.

Before attending the training, we asked our students to participate in some online VSAT training hosted by the Global VSAT Forum (GVF), so that all students arrived at the course with a detailed understanding of the VSAT Theory
Each course lasted for about 5 days and incorporated an emergency scenario. As a result of this programme, we have now trained around 30 people.

If we deploy technicians to a response, we are likely to send two people. There are two defined roles as follows:

 Emergency ICT & Energy Team Leader: Responsible for the overall response and works closely with Global and regional managers to coordinate the response. Also engages with external organisations such as the ETC where needed. Also responsible for the high level and complex design of technology solutions for the response.

Deputy Emergency ICT & Energy Team Leader: Responsible for the delivery of user facing services and manages the day to day activities of any local IT people who are recruited for the emergency. Works closely with the Logistics team to ensure that the ICT supply chain runs smoothly.

As we have people based in all regions, one or both of the roles might even be filled by people already based in the country where the disaster has taken place.

 

 

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