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Save The Children Research Funded By Vodafone Foundation Identifies Critical Importance Of Mobile Technology In Disaster Zones

10 Dec 2012Vodafone Foundation news
4 minute read

Save the Children has identified the need for mobile technology in emergency response as an important tool in achieving its goal of reaching 10m children a year by 2015 and has commissioned research – funded by the Vodafone Foundation - to understand the options for future collaboration with mobile operators.

Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive, Save the Children, will say today (10 December) at the Vodafone Foundation and London Business School’s Mobile for Good Summit that the organisation will pilot new solutions using mobile in emergency situations and will require the support of mobile operators to harness the power of this technology.

The research by development specialist Jigsaw Consult has found that the use of mobile in emergency response is hampered by a lack of collaboration between humanitarian agencies, mobile network operators and governments. The research discusses the modelling of new collaboration between NGOs and mobile operators.

Jigsaw Consult says there is “a widespread lack of awareness regarding how mobile phones can be used in emergency response,” mainly because of a lack of training for humanitarian staff, a lack of preparedness and the limited opportunity to innovate in the high-pressure environment of an unfolding emergency.

It mentions the development of new technology to provide rapid help when there is infrastructure damage, such as Vodafone’s Instant Network, a portable GSM network designed for use in emergency situations where regular mobile phone networks have been damaged. The Instant Network packs in to three suitcases, weighs less than 100kg and can be taken on commercial flights. Once on location a network can be established in 40 minutes.

However, the consultancy says the ‘humanitarian sector is lagging considerably behind the mobile innovation curve’, adding that the use of mobile in emergency response is hampered by lack of collaboration and knowledge sharing between humanitarian agencies, mobile operators and governments.

In order for the humanitarian sector to realise the transformative potential of mobile phones more fully, Jigsaw Consult recommends that:

  1. NGOs: Introduce and prioritise mobile-based services throughout emergency preparedness, contingency planning and response, such as rapid needs assessments, large scale two-way communication and ‘feedback and complaints’ systems.
  2. Mobile operators: Prioritise increasing network coverage for the most remote areas in emergencies and develop a training programme, including simulation exercises that can help humanitarian agencies learn about the range of different uses of mobile technology and how these can be applied in emergencies.
  3. Governments: Recognise the need to incorporate emergency support for communications as an essential component of response efforts: the restoration of mobile networks should be regarded as a life-saving humanitarian priority. Work to improve national regulatory environments to facilitate effective emergency mobile-based interventions and allow data sharing for humanitarian purposes.

The consultancy also recommends that Save the Children collaborates with mobile operators to develop an effective training programme and that field testing is carried out in a selected country. The full report can be found at

Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive, Save the Children, said: "The world is at a tipping point in our battle to end child deaths from preventable illnesses and lift millions more children out of poverty. Never before have we witnessed such rapid progress with deaths coming down from 12 million to 6.9 million last year. To accelerate this progress we need to harness fresh, innovative approaches, using mobile technology to reach more children and save more lives.”

Andrew Dunnett, Director, Vodafone Foundation, said: “Mobile technology has the potential to improve lifestyles and save lives. It is already being used effectively to improve health, education, agriculture, financial services and in emergency situations -where we have been supporting emergency telecoms initiatives for more than 10 years - but much more is possible. Successful long-term collaboration between NGOs, governments and the corporate sector will develop mobile's full potential."

Note to Editors

TABLE: How the challenges of using mobiles in emergencies can be overcome (Jigsaw Consult’s research)

Common technical challenges with use of mobiles in emergency Ways to overcome these challenges
Network capacity is limited and unreliable
Mobile network capacity may be inadequate for coping with demand following disasters, leading to long delays and uncertainty regarding whether SMS sent are being received (Yap, 2011).Mobile operators can build capacity to deploy or re-establish network faster in areas affected by disasters
Mobile operators, government and NGOs can work to maintain databases of users needing priority access in emergencies so that those saving lives can avoid congestion.
After the earthquake in Haiti systems were overloaded and it is estimated that SMS were received only 60-70% of the time. On several occasions SMS blasts from humanitarian agencies crashed mobile networks for several hours (Nelson & Sigal, 2010).Mobile operators, government and INGOs can encourage non-emergency responders to use SMS as opposed to voice if necessary to reduce risk of congestion, and to consolidate communications campaigns so that the same messages are not repeated from different sources.
The most marginalised cannot access mobile phones even outside of emergencies
Some disaster affected communities have low levels of phone ownership and low exposure to technology. Those who do have access to mobile phones are unlikely to be the most marginalised.When assessing the appropriateness of using mobile phones in disaster response it is important to consider which technologies affected communities are already using, how they are using them, and what are their preferred channels of communication (Infoasaid & FrontlineSMS, 2011).
Mobile phone calling booths can be established to offer free calls, SMS, phone charging and data so that affected civilians without phones, credit or power on the phone can communicate with family. (for example, earthquake in Turkey, Smart and Globe in the Philippines and Telkom in Indonesia)
There are too many institutional and operational barriers in place
Lack of clear operational frameworks for co-operation amongst mobile operators, NGOs and governments, and institutional barriers from unprepared or ineffective bureaucracies increase the time and effort required to set up new communication systems in emergency contexts. Getting mobile operators to collaborate and synchronise is challenging (Williams and Gilchrist 2012).Mobile operators, governments and NGOs can map vulnerable areas and pre-position telecom assets to reach faster in emergencies.
Support can be gained from the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), GSMA and ITU.
When combined with the difficulty of negotiating contracts, establishing guidelines and training staff, this is a major obstacle to the uptake of mobile phone use in emergency situations (Smith et al, 2011).Promote regional and national drills involving the general public, NGOs, mobile operators and the government, building on resources such as those used in Japan and New Zealand (Shake Out 2012).
Although often theoretically possible, the procurement and distribution of mobile phone handsets and SIM cards is time consuming and costly both in terms of financial and human resources (Poisson, 2011).Agree and standardise frameworks for cooperation amongst mobile operators, NGOs and governments so that agreements can be put into place before emergencies, and made readily available in a standard form without lengthy negotiation.
Emergencies often mean significant damage to mobile infrastructure
Infrastructural damage such as power cuts, mobile network outages and the time taken to repair damaged infrastructure all constitute major obstacles to using mobile phones in emergency situations (Infoasaid & Frontline SMS 2011).New technologies are being developed to provide rapid help in overcoming the challenges of infrastructure damage and establishing systems. This includes stand-alone communication networks, such as Vodafone’s instant network solution, a portable GSM network designed for use in emergency situations where regular mobile phone networks have been damaged (Vodafone 2011).
Significant research into innovative use of mobiles in contexts of government censorship for ‘off-grid’ and ad-hoc communications can also be applied to overcome infrastructural damage in emergency situations (Glanz & Markoff 2011; Loftus, 2011).
Regulations for emergency provision of mobile networks can be temporarily relaxed, so that temporary infrastructure can be made operational by NGOs without lengthy procedures for permission for spectrum use.
The initial cost of investment in mobile technologies is too high
Humanitarian agencies may have insufficient financial resources to invest in new technologies, have limited capacity to trial and adopt new ways of working, lack knowledge about new technologies and consider them to be too high risk or beyond their humanitarian remit (Smith et al, 2011).Mobile operators can encourage a vision and help provide evidence to NGOs of the long-term cost-savings of technology and extended relationships which distribute the up-front costs over a longer period.
Mobile operators can support NGOs and Government through programmes such as Vodafone’s ‘Mobile for Good’, seeking to bring the private and public sector together.

For further information:

Save The Children

Contact number: 0207 012 6841


Vodafone Group

Media Relations - Telephone: +44 1635 664 444

About Save the Children

Save the Children works in more than 120 countries. We save children’s lives. We fight for their rights. We help them fulfil their potential.

About Vodafone Foundation

At the heart of the Foundation is the belief that Vodafone’s mobile communications technologies can address some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges and Vodafone’s responsibility is to utilise mobile technology in mobilising social change and improving people’s lives. The Vodafone Foundation invests in the communities in which Vodafone operates and is at the centre of a network of Vodafone's global and local social investment programmes. Vodafone Foundation UK registered charity number 1089625.

About Vodafone Group

Vodafone is one of the world's largest mobile communications companies by revenue with approximately 407 million customers in its controlled and jointly controlled markets as of 30 September 2012. Vodafone currently has equity interests in over 30 countries across five continents and more than 50 partner networks worldwide. For more information, please visit

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