LIRNEasia (www.lirneasia.net) are a regional information and communication technology (ICT) think tank active across the Asia Pacific. They began working together with one of Sri Lanka's biggest NGO's, Sarvodaya (www.sarvodaya.org) in June 2011 to use Freedom Fone in emergency response operations.
Whether during a flood, earthquake or tsunami, governments or emergency services usually have a very short time to send out a warning alert to a large and diverse population around the affected area. In such situations, the rapidity of response and accuracy of the information provided by any disaster management system is of the essence. This creates a great need for voice based communications to complement an initial SMS text alert.
"The character limitation of SMS limits the amount of information we can send when alerting the first responders in an emergency. If we could deliver a short wake-up text message and a localised descriptive voice message, that would be much more effective. That's where we found Freedom Fone very useful."
-- Nuwan Waidanyatha, research fellow at LIRNEasia
Sarvodaya plans to combine SMS alerts (sent using Sahana or other bulk SMS applications) with Freedom Fone's Voice Menus function to share important updates with villagers. SMS alerts will be sent to a network of trained individuals in each village - known as first responders - with an additional request to phone Sarvodaya's Freedom Fone lines for more detailed information about the evolving crisis.
Feedback, situation reports and requests for information and help from the field will be facilitated through the Leave-a-Message function, as Nuwan Waidanyatha describes further:
"When Sarvodaya first-responders assess the damage and report the incidents for rescue and relief actions they call Freedom Fone to leave a message. For example, several students evading the flood waters are stranded on a building and need immediate assistance. This message is received at the Sarvodaya incident command center and is processed to deploy the required resources."
When Freedom Fone's Campaign Dialer function is released in late 2011, it will be possible to automate call-outs to the list of numbers in a Freedom Fone Phone Book. When recipients answer their phone, they will be connected to a Voice Menu with updated information about the crisis. This feature can make sure people are alerted and informed of a crisis in the event that first responders fail to receive the initial SMS alerts.
Sarvodaya's Emergency Response Team field tested Freedom Fone in a number of different districts in Sri Lanka. They found that Freedom Fone provided a much needed structure for complementing early warning alerts and for receiving situational reports from the field once a disaster has struck.
This experiment points to the importance of integrating voice based communications as a complementary feature in any emergency relief operation. Voice based solutions not only provide more information than SMS, they also provide an immediate solution to language challenges faced by text communication. In many contexts languages are not supported by SMS, some audiences may be illiterate or simply a culture may be more predisposed to oral communication.
"From a global perspective, in our parts of the world people are vocal. We do business with voice. We don't write big memos, we don't write big e-mails, you just pick up the phone and you make a call, you talk to the person and you do your business. From that perspective Freedom Fone positions itself naturally in a very good way," says Nuwan Waidanyatha.
Based on these trials Sarvodaya is now implementing Freedom Fone as part of their emergency response procedures.
LIRNEasia is further investigating how Freedom Fone integrates with the SAHANA disaster management system and other open-source platforms active in crisis communications. Details of this report are available at http://lirneasia.net/projects/2010-12-research-program/ff4edxl/
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