Technology in times of crisis

In Aquila Children’s Magazine (ages 7-12), March 2014.

aquila2Technology in times of crisis
The best technology is often the one that’s the simplest, cheapest and easiest to use. Think about it: you don’t want it breaking, you don’t want to spend ages learning how to use it, and you certainly don’t want it to be so expensive you can’t afford it in the first place. In a crisis this is true more than ever, as good technology can be priceless by helping people talk to each other, move money, keep medicines safe, and even keep sharks at bay.

Balloon internet and mobile money
To bring the internet to remote areas, Google has been developing balloons that will provide web access for people on the ground below. This is a great idea for areas struck by natural disaster, as people can communicate with each other, and coordinate aid and rescue efforts when equipment on the ground has been damaged. Google’s ‘Project Loon’ has seen 30 superpressure balloons launched from New Zealand, where the idea is that they will drift around the world on a controlled path. Each balloon is 15 metres in diameter and fly 20 kilometres above ground, higher than any plane. Solar panels are used to power the electronic equipment, which includes a radio antenna, flight computer, and an altitude control system.

Using mobile phones for banking is slowly becoming popular in the United Kingdom, but it is still not a very common way to handle money. But in many African countries, the opposite is true. In Kenya, a mobile banking system called M-Pesa has become one of the most important tools to move money. The reason for its popularity is because it’s so easy to use: you buy phone credit, and then use that to pay for things on your phone. There is no need to have a debit card, which is another reason the system has become so widespread: most people in Kenya don’t have a bank account, but lots have mobile phones. Last year there were over 150 companies providing mobile money services to people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with over 82 million people using the service.

Clean water and safe vaccines
Making sure there is plenty of clean water to drink is probably the most important thing in a disaster. We can survive for weeks without food if we have to, but we can’t go more than three days without water. There are several ways to purify water, but in a disaster you need one that is small and easy to move, simple to use and not breaking too easily, and probably most importantly: cheap. One option is a small device being developed by an American university working with Engineers Without Borders. The device has a ceramic filter that stops contaminants from coming through, and uses a mixture with burned coconut shells to clean the water by stimulating an active-carbon process. The cheap system has been approved by the World Health Organisation.

When there is no electricity, solar-powered lamps can be used. They work by absorbing solar radiation during the day, so they can emit light at night. Alternatively, they can be used to charge mobile phones. Charities sent thousands of solar lamps to the Philippines after last year’s typhoon. Solar power can also be used to power mini-refrigerators, as many types of vaccinations need to be kept cold. Doctors and nurses working for a charity in Malaysia are currently using a fridge that can stay cool for several days without needing re-charging. This makes it a lot easier to keep medicines safe when travelling to remote areas, or to places with extreme temperatures.

Twitter for help and warning
The Twitter network is great for spreading information to people quickly when something happens. A good example of this is when people wanted to help with the clean-up after the London riots a couple of years ago. Twitter became the best way to organise this, because people could search for clean-up teams in their local area. TV would report the news, but keeping track of who was doing what in each neighbourhood was best left to Twitter. Another point is how the TV channels focused on the destruction, while those following the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter saw a different story: how neighbourhoods were pulling together, and thousands of people showed up to fix what had been broken.

Sharks may not have hands to type messages to send to Twitter, but in Western Australia, that is not a problem. Scientists have tagged hundreds of sharks with transmitters, meaning messages will automatically be sent to Twitter if they go too close to the beaches. This will hopefully keep people safer while swimming, as they now learn of nearby sharks a lot quicker than they used to. The sharks, many of them being great whites, are safer too, as beach security is an important issue in Australia. Fewer incidents with swimmers and surfers would make it easier to defend sharks from being culled.