When a country is hit by a natural disaster, communications networks play a crucial role in enabling relief agencies to provide the necessary emergency support, such as the distribution of food and medical supplies.
One organisation that helps to re-establish satellite and radio-based communication systems for use by aid workers is the World Food Program, which quickly deployed its emergency IT team to Pakistan when the country was hit by severe floods. The floods are believed to have killed at least 1,600 people and affected around 20 million others.
ComputerworldUK spoke to the WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) to find out what exactly the organisation’s specialist IT staff had been doing to help in Pakistan. The Program is backed by the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, which provide financial and strategic support.
According to Martin Kristensson, IT emergency coordinator at WFP who has been coordinating the groundwork from Rome, a range of technologies have been deployed in Pakistan for aid workers, ranging from satellite technology to a “kind of internet cafe”.
“We try to set up with a wireless network, a kind of ‘internet cafe’, which, if nothing else is available, might be just a table in the middle of nowhere, with a printer and telephone. And if there is no space at the table, you sit around the table,” Kristensson explained.
In addition, FITTEST has deployed Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs), a two-way satellite ground station, as well as small portable data terminals with limited data and voice capacity. The main requirements of any system that the team deploys are that they have to be “cost-efficient” and “quick to deploy”.
WFP, which has a large team of specialist IT workers headquartered in Dubai, usually deploys members of FITTEST within 24 and 48 hours of a disaster to reinforce the local team on the ground. In Pakistan, two specialists from Dubai arrived on the 3 August.
“Pakistan is a country that we have been in for a very long time, which means we have structure on the ground,” said Kristensson. “We are also lucky that the telecoms in major cities have been working throughout the emergency, so that means the work of the ground has been more straightforward.”
As well as bringing equipment to support the infrastructure in Pakistan, Kristensson said that the WFP also tries to build the telecommunications capacity on the ground, by bringing all the different relief agencies together to establish a local working group.
“We have a number of other people working together – we have UNICEF, some NGOs, for example World Vision and Save the Children, who open up their offices to host a [‘internet cafe’] table,” said Kristensson.
He added that the local working group also helps by running telecoms checks, for example, by testing if mobile phones and mobile phone networks are working, and then trying to fill any gaps in the networks. Building local capacity is important so that the work started by WFP can be continued by local people on the ground after the organisation pulls out of the country.
In addition, WFP works in partnership with the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation to provide a training programme for IT aid workers, in order to develop best practice and share experiences. This is another way to ‘build capacity’ on a global level, said Kristensson.
However, Kristensson said that the technological requirements during a disaster have expanded greatly over the last year.
“In the past, people were happy just having telecoms. Now, we are demanding more corporate systems, and also emergencies are developing very fast,” he said.
To this end, WFP is looking for new, faster technological solutions that are both low-cost and quick to deploy.
One solution, developed as part of the Emergency Preparedness Integration Centre (EPIC) project, is an EPIC device that enables voice, instant messaging and email data to be sent and received between desktop computers, mobile phones, EPIC PDAs and digital radios.
The EPIC device connects to the Internet via standard high-speed Wi-Fi links or GSM networks. It also has an in-built GPS capability that facilitates the tracking of aid workers using the devices.
WFP is also working to develop ruggedized wireless mesh technology, which uses different types of wireless technology, for use in the field.
The UN Foundation has posted a podcast on its website from Dane Novarlic, a member of the FITTEST, who is now based in Pakistan, describing his experiences and the challenges the team has faced. Readers are also invited to post questions for the WFP team here.