March 17, 2011 By Indrajit Basu
When it comes to disaster management, there are quite a few aid organizations around the world who arrive quickly to the spot to help with whatever help required starting from food, to medicines and even ICT.
But Japan’s worst earthquake in decades that is leading to a nuclear crisis as well has raised a peculiar problem. How do international agencies reach with aid, particularly technology aid, when a disaster has the potential to endanger the lives of the helpers who are not locals?
In Japan for instance, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) -- or Telecom Without Borders -- the France-based NGO that specializes in setting up emergency telecommunications in disaster hit areas around the world, was one of the first international aid agencies to reach Japan for setting up an emergency telecommunication network in the affected areas.
But when Japan’s beleaguered nuclear power plants started spewing out nuclear radiation, TSF had to hastily retreat. According to TSF, concerned by the threat its staff faced due to the radiation hazard, TSF was forced to pull out yesterday; with bag, equipments and baggage, so to speak.
One organization that was able to tackle this eventuality smartly was UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). ITU too dispatched its emergency telecommunications equipment to areas severely affected by the tsunami within 24 hours of Friday’s devastating earthquake.
But instead of sending its own people, it sent its equipment with detailed and lucidly composed instruction manuals so that the local agencies operating on spot could deploy them easily.
“Although our first concern was to save lives and we were not bothered by issues like danger, diseases and even nuclear radiation, ITU sent its equipments with detailed and carefully composed instruction materials so that authorities there can install them within a few seconds to start communication,” says Cosmas Zavazava. chief, Projects and Initiatives Department, ITU.
Zavazava added that ITU has handed equipment to the local agencies instead of operating them on its own, so that they could be distributed and deployed quickly.
ITU has also been thoughtful about sending different types of technologies so that “if one doesn’t work well, there are other options. Moreover Japan needed a mix of technologies for handling different types of problems,” he said.
ITU deployed 78 Thuraya satellite phones equipped with GPS to facilitate search and rescue efforts, 13 Iridium satellite phones and 37 Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network terminals.
“The Thuraya technology will be particularly helpful for locating and rescuing people buried under the rubble because those phones are GPS enabled. With a GPS-enabled phone it becomes easy to spot victims who cannot be seen.”
Iridium satellite phones and Inmarsat can handle broadband well, “which make them ideal for data transmission.”
According to Zavazava, an additional 30 Inmarsat terminals are also ready for dispatch.
With the phones, ITU has also supplied solar panels so that the equipment can be charged by car batteries and can enable operations during power outages.
Being part of the ITU Framework for Cooperation in Emergencies (IFCE), Zavazava says that ITU’s emergency telecom deployments benefit significantly from various types of resources.
That is because, besides providing telecommunications/ICT services and applications for disaster mitigation at all phases of disaster management , IFCE also has a goal of tapping resources from its sector members and non-sector members who own resources that could act as inputs to the IFCE.
For instance, this initiative has three clusters called, technology, finance and logistics.
The technology cluster consists of satellite operators and Land Earth Station operators, telecommunications operators -- especially mobile service providers -- and geographic information system (GIS) providers for the assimilation and dissemination of preplanned, historical and real-time information before, during and after disasters. This approach allows several agencies operating on different technology platforms and using different communication channels to use the Internet to collaborate while managing disasters.
The finance cluster focuses on potential sources of finance that may contribute toward the creation of a stand-by fund that will be used when disasters strike. These include governments, development banks, regional economic groups, etc.
The logistics cluster draws support services such as the transportation of telecommunications/ICT equipment to and from sites of disasters. This includes air transport operators, and international couriers.
“The IFCE framework then makes ITU deployments unique by way of drawing support from myriad resources and expertise,” says Zavazava.
Technology may the one of the greatest enablers of good things in life, but even until recently, it was mainly a phenomenon that benefited the more resourceful section of the world. That's changing though. Thanks to its constant evolution in the last few years, technology, particularly digital technologies, have ceased to be the privilege of a select few. From a hungry child in Niger, to the downtrodden lavatory cleaner in India, to the lonely billionaire widower living in a swanky Manhattan apartment, digital technologies are radically changing the lives of all these days.
As an international correspondent for Digital Communities, I have covered the power that ICT wields, particularly over the inhabitants of the developing world. But often a 1200-word feature does not bring forth the magic of ICT fast enough. My endeavor in this space would be to do just that; highlight some notable ICT-related developments as fast as I can.