Mobile Asia Expo: Disaster Response Working Group Overview

During Mobile Asia Expo (June 2012, Shanghai), the Disaster Response Programme welcomed representatives from the mobile industry and humanitarian community, including SMART Communications Inc., NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, Dialog Axiata, Ericsson, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and others to its first regional Working Group held in Asia.

The morning session introduced the Programme to participants, and addressed a number of the technical challenges that mobile operators face during natural disasters. Managing power outages and the cost-benefit of back up power provisioning for crisis were discussed, and different strategies were shared between participants relating to the minimum duration of autonomous back-up power provided for within their networks.  The challenge of achieving an industry-wide standard of back-up power was discussed, with some concluding that all operators have different technical KPI’s and investment capacity, and that power requirements were often site-specific. These issues in addition to operator- specific internal priorities may prevent the identification and adoption of a minimum standard.  Despite this from a disaster-preparedness perspective, most agreed that power was often a significant problem, and the GSMA Disaster Response Programme will continue to catalogue the efforts of different operators in this area. The GSMA Disaster Response Programme also participated in the Green Power for Mobile Working Group in Cambodia in July to learn more about alternative power solutions that may be relevant in a disaster context.

Mobile network congestion was also a hot topic in the morning session. After a disaster, call volumes are significantly higher than normal- for example, following the Tsunami in Japan in 2011, call levels reached up to 60 times the normal traffic volume, as individuals and emergency responders rushed to communicate via the mobile network.  The group suggested that they need to explore the technical possibilities of packet networks for services for information and reducing congestion.

Prioritisation of emergency numbers, “text-not-talk” awareness strategies, customer education and network management strategies were discussed by Working Group participants. However one of the key themes of the session was that despite the technical challenges and potential solutions, congestion is a fundamentally social phenomenon, and is a result of the impulse of affected individuals to communicate with their loved ones or request assistance. The human instinct is to communicate and any behavioural change around making calls are likely to be much more difficult to affect. Mobile operators identify themselves as having an important role is supporting the communication needs of their customers in times of crisis and therefore congestion relieving strategies must take human behaviour into account.

The afternoon session focused on preparedness and coordination: understanding what partnerships are required between the mobile community and other stakeholders to deliver effective and efficient response, and what some of the challenges and successes have been to date.  Early-warning systems to alert mobile users of potential or confirmed natural disasters were discussed, as was the risk for mobile operators in sending out an alert for an event that turned out to be a “false alarm” and raising undue panic amongst their customers. The importance of working closely with Government authorities, and having clear hierarchies of communication and protocols for early warning systems were emphasised, as in most cases, early warning cell-broadcast can only be initiated by Government. The need to look at regulations that impact how mobile operators can engage pre and post- disaster was raised, and the importance of making regulations conducive both to the relief needs and to privacy and licensing realities was raised. Working more effectively with government was seen as a priority, as the trends regionally suggest that more response activity will come from within a country, rather than from international assistance.

Partnerships between mobile operators and weather service providers was also raised as a strategy to help keep customers informed about local conditions and potential threats.  Participants listened to a presentation from Dialog Axiata Sri Lanka on their early warning system DEWN.The importance of mobile communication in facilitating an “information ecology” amongst local communities was discussed. The significant role of other communication channels TV, radio, social media, and person-to-person exchanges was also  emphasised, and the WG participants listened to a presentation from the IFRC on its beneficiary communication efforts which span a variety of media, and now also include a mobile technology platform called TERA.

Mobilising the employee network of mobile operators to support in response was raised in a presentation from KDDI who also talked about the disaster message board services used in Japan, and stressed the importance of good cooperation not only between operators and other stakeholders, but within the mobile industry as well.

Participants from the humanitarian community were curious to learn how operators determine when to intervene in disasters, given the range of sudden-onset emergencies (such as an earthquake) to more long-term protracted crises (like famine).  Operators also discussed their own constraints in response, not least the reality that they too can be badly affected during disasters in terms of their infrastructure, staff and families. Establishing clear communication about expectations, capacity and responsibilities between mobile operators and humanitarian actors in advance of a disaster was seen as essential to building longevity and predictability into partnerships.

Many thanks to all those that attended and contributed to the lively discussions. We are looking forward to the next Asia-Pacific edition of the Disaster Response Working Group, and will be hosting similar workshops in East Africa and Latin America in 2012, so stay tuned for save the dates or email to express interest in attending or for more information!

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