As the number of humanitarian, emergency, or natural disaster crises continues to rise each year, a great strain has been placed on the aid agencies who are both first-responders and follow-up assistance. The ability to connect with aid agencies, emergency services, medical help, and reconnect with family members is essential, and having an early-warning system in place, prior to the arrival of natural or geological events, is also imperative.

In a paper for the World Economic Forum, it was reported that in 2016 alone, over 65 million people were forcefully displaced from their homes. For these people, mobile connectivity provides the following:

  • solutions to the basic need to be connected to both the outside world and the local community
  • early warnings through text messaging so citizens can evacuate, especially in places that are prone to geological events, weather events, or dangers like seasonal bushfires
  • proofs of identity to allow those in need of aid to receive food, medical care, clothing, housing, and education
  • blockchain-backed mobile banking to allow cash transfers to be made by humanitarian or government agencies, directly to the locally affected people.

Mobile phone warning systems have been considered to be an essential part of the annual bushfire season in Australia. However, recent events have raised questions about the reliability of mobile warnings and the robustness of the Australian telecommunications system in particular. In mid-March 2018, hundreds of citizens of New South Wales were meant to be informed that it was time to flee – but due to power failures and a fragile phone system, many people never received those essential messages. This could have been avoided had they employed the same blockchain-secured mobile phone systems used in less developed nations like India or those in Africa. This could have allowed their citizens to have greater peace of mind regarding their early warning system. (ABC, March 2018) (Guardian, March 2018)

Australia is not the only country without a reliable mobile phone system for sending out warnings. Portugal is similar to Australia’s high level of forest fire risk, due almost entirely to the forestry plantations that are filled with imported eucalyptus trees from Australia. Those oil-filled trees ignite rapidly and explode in the heat. Just like Australia, Portugal also lacks a robust mobile phone network that could be managed at a distance while sending out SMS warnings to the list of residents that have been securely registered on the blockchain. In mid-2017, over 60 people and countless animals died in the bushfires due to lack of adequate SMS or mobile app warning systems. (BBC, June 2017)

Another example of warning-system failure occurred in California in the late autumn of 2017. The almost-unstoppable fires occurring around Sonoma and the wine country region left over 10,000 homes destroyed and 44 people dead. By December of 2017, serious investigations were being done about why the early-warning system failed so badly and how that type of failure could be prevented in the future.

Government records have noted that only 10% of the authorised calling list received the SMS messages or ‘robocalls’ meant to be sent by the system. This is because the local government failed to activate the warning system for those in the highest path of danger out of fear that they would cause a mass panic in the population. An article in the LA Times is bone-chilling to read as it details the many layers of failure in the system. It is clear that a radical overhaul is necessary – now, not later. (LA Times, Dec. 2017)

The three examples of bushfire-warning failure listed above should provide concrete examples of why it might be wiser to employ a tear-it-down-and-rebuild-it strategy from country to country where these sorts of issues occur. However, that strategy would be dependent on the cooperation of those members of the public who wish to know in advance if their lives, property, and well-being are at risk in disaster situations.

If the types of digital verification being done in Kenya are working successfully, then citizens in disaster-prone areas – including areas where hurricanes, flooding, or geological events are likely to happen – must be encouraged to register their identity and mobile phone numbers so that the information can be entered into a blockchain-secured database. That database can then be automatically activated by a disaster-related version of a smart-contract – and automated texts or robocalls could be made to everyone on those lists. The extra warning time would surely save thousands of lives around the world each year. (GSMA, n.d.)

Other types of apps that have been developed for early warnings include several aimed at alerting the public to an earthquake before it arrives. App developers at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory in California created My Shake to enable users to have a 40-second warning. An interview with CNN noted that the app would be especially useful in places such as Nepal and Peru, sites that experience devastating earthquakes on a regular basis. (CNN, Feb. 2016) (MyShake, n.d.)

For those living or travelling in the so-called ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ area of geological instability, an article in a South China newspaper listed apps that would send warnings to your mobile phone in the event of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or tsunamis. (South China Morning Post, Oct. 2017)

Canada is being proactive, embracing the latest technology and showing concern for their residents, as they launch a country-wide system in April 2018. The comprehensive emergency warning system will alert citizens to both public safety emergencies and natural disasters. Users will be warned of potential dangers through a series of distinctive sounds or tones, vibrations, and messages. (Financial Post, March 2018)

More countries should similarly follow-suit, and adopt better early warning systems. The use of blockchain technology can introduce fail-safes and fool-proof systems especially through the use of smart contracts. These will trigger automatically, ensuring that if, for any reason, bureaucratic, human error or otherwise, the government fails to send out warnings manually, their citizens will still be protected.

REFERENCES

  1. Granryd, Mats (2017, Aug.22). Five ways mobile technology can help in humanitarian emergencies. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/08/mobile-technology-humanitarian-crisis
  2. Bushfire in Tathra wipes out 69 homes, residents still unable to return to NSW south coast town. (2018, March 20). Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-19/nsw-bushfire-eases-at-tathra-firefighters-count-homes-lost/9561734
  3. Knaus, Christopher (2018, March 19). NSW authorities defend warning system after devastating Tathra fire. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/mar/19/nsw-authorities-defend-warning-system-after-devastating-tathra-fire
  4. Portugal wildfires: Why are they so deadly? (2017, June 20) Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40341180
  5. John, Paige (2017, Dec. 29). Alarming failures left many in path of California wildfires vulnerable and without warning. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-fire-warnings-failure-20171229-story.html
  6. Blockchain For Development. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Blockchain-for-Development.pdf
  7. Almasy, Steve and Allan, Keith (2016, Feb. 13). Earthquake app may one day warn you that earthquakes are coming. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/12/tech/earthquake-app-cal-berkeley/index.html
  8. MyShake (n.d.). Retrieved from http://myshake.berkeley.edu/
  9. Carter, Jamie (2017, Oct. 20). Three free apps to warn travellers of natural disasters. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/travel-leisure/article/2113386/three-free-apps-warn-travellers-natural-disasters-near-and
  10. Jackson, Emily (2018, March 9). Canada poised to launch emergency alert system on smartphones. Retrieved from http://business.financialpost.com/telecom/canada-poised-to-launch-emergency-alert-system-on-smartphones