Over the weekend a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, causing untold devastation to areas around the country. Buildings have been levelled, avalanches occurred, over 6,500 people have been injured and nearly 4,000 have tragically lost their lives. Relief efforts are currently underway, and as is always the case with these sorts of things, technology is proving to be an invaluable tool.
The relief efforts are still picking up pace, but tech companies are currently utilising their own services to help things along. Google and Facebook both have tools that allow people to connect with friends and family who may have been in Nepal at the time. Various mobile networks are charging local rates for international calls to Nepal, and Viber is letting people phone mobiles and landlines in the country free of charge.
There is a lot more than can be used, though, and even though they not every disaster relief tool has been put into action in Nepal yet, the tech is still out there, and improving all the time. Some of it has been tried and tested, while others are little more than concepts right now. There's plenty of life-saving potential in the world of tech.
Mobile Disaster Relief (iOS app)
When it comes to providing relief, making sure that everyone has all the correct information is essential, and can literally be the difference between life and death. Thankfully, smartphones have made transmitting that information easier than it ever has been. One such example of this in action is an iOS app called Mobile Disaster Relief. The app is a tool for first responders, aid workers, scouts, and coordinators, and focuses on recording what the situation is like and what needs to be done to fix it. The idea is that information and images will be transmitted and updated far faster than traditional methods, which will improve the coordination and efficiency of the relief efforts and potentially save lives.
Drones for Search and Rescue Efforts
There's quite a lot of promise in using drones to aid relief efforts. Just last week a study commissioned by the American Red Cross referred to drones as "the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief efforts". The ARC admitted that this use of drone technology is still in its early days, and a lot of work needs to be done to ensure their usefulness (not the mention the legality of use) in the US and abroad.
That being said, the report did confirm some examples of where drones could be invaluable. That includes streaming live video to emergency workers to make sure they know what's going on, locating survivors, and delivering small batches of supplies to hard-to-reach locations. The Japanese have already put drones to work, using them to measure radiation levels at Fukishima without putting a pilot's wellbeing at risk, and Texas A&M Professor Robin Murphy believes they can significantly reduce the initial response time.
While they've yet to be put into action, robots also offer some promise in ensuring relief efforts are rolled out faster and smoother. According to DARPA, the primary goal of its robotics challenge is to benefit "humanitarian and disaster relief", and you can see that in many of the robots that have come out of it. Its robot 'cheetah' can run at 30 miles an hour and is capable of jumping over obstacles autonomously, making it ideal for quickly sending supplies across unstable terrain. Its more humanoid robots could also be put into use one day, since they are capable of going to places unsuitable for humans. They're balanced, can lift heavy objects, and work is being done to ensure they can operate without a tether for long periods of time.
But tech isn't just making it easier to provide people with essential, immediate relief. Technological advances can make the lives of those affected easier in the wake of the disaster. Some of this tech focusses on mobile phones; the concept of 'mesh networking' allows mobile phones to communicate with directly with each other, even when there's no mobile signal in the surrounding areas, for instance. It's a technology developed in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti by Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, a computer systems researcher at Flinders University in Australia. It's less useful for communicating with the outside world, but it does mean that people affected by a disaster can easily stay in touch with each other locally.
Obviously keeping the phones charged is a concern, and one solution has been to send specialised solar powered lanterns in with food and medical supplies. Sent to Yazidi communities fleeing militants in Iraq last August, these lanterns are able to provide light and keep mobile phones fully charged.
The most important thing to consider is making sure people have adequate facilities to survive in the long term. That means shelters, sanitation, power, and clean drinking water. Flat pack infrastructure is a big concern, because it means important things can be shipped to areas affected by disaster and constructed in a short space of time. Shelters are the main thing that people think of in this respect, but other things come in flat pack form -- like toilets.
This is called the 'Disaster Relief Toilet System', and it's an 18-inch high flat pack toilet that comes with a privacy tent, a waste-disposal system, a removable cart, and a biodegradable drawstring bag. Not only does that mean people can use the toilet in comfort, it keeps the local water supply free from waste.
A clean toilet isn't really ideal if the water supply is already contaminated, though, and if you're in a disaster area you don't really have the resources to fix it for yourself. There is another concept here in the form of C-Water. C-Water is a plastic contraption that contains a water tank and a ridged ceiling for evaporating and condensing water. All you have to do is place it into some sewage, or water that's generally unsuitable for drinking, and it will collect a supply of clean water for you without any sort of energy input. Perfect for areas that may have intermittent power and little access to clean drinking water.
Time if of the essence for the Nepalese relief effort, meaning that some of these concepts will be of little immediate help. But while innovative thinkers continue push the boundaries of how tech can be deployed in areas in dire need, we can rest a little easier in the knowledge that future crises will get the tech-powered support they need.
You can help now too, today. The British Red Cross is doing vital work in Nepal as you read this -- do the right thing and send some money towards its Nepalese Earthquake appeal. You can find the details here.