SMS-ing preparedness

“Are the canals and trenches around your home clean and free of rubbish?”

Hundreds of thousands Haitians are receiving this message by SMS in the morning, followed in the afternoon by advice about clearing out debris, as part of a project by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Now common in disaster response, SMS was widely used in Haiti just after the 12 January 2010 earthquake to locate trapped people and save lives. Later, aid agencies began sending out messages about distributions of food and relief supplies.

“Now we are using it for preparedness,” Sharon Reader of IFRC in Haiti told IRIN.

Haiti, prone to catastrophic storms and flooding, is approaching the peak of the hurricane season.

Other question in IFRC’s week-long preparedness series - sent in the local Creole language - include: “Have you noticed what areas of your neighbourhood flood?” and “Where can you get information before, during and after emergencies?” “Do you know what causes landslides?” Each is followed a few hours later by advice, which takes into account people still living in tents: "If you live in a tent, secure ropes, tarpaulins and areas exposed to wind and rain."

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Landslides remain a huge risk for some 1.3 million still living in tents and other temporary housing in the capital. People living in camps are extremely vulnerable to floods and landslides, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Haiti says in its latest bulletin, 17 August. 

The preparedness messages - which began on 24 August - are sent out to all Voila mobile phone subscribers through a platform that has been developed specifically for the Red Cross, according to IFRC. Voila is one of Haiti’s largest telecommunications providers and has developed a web-based platform that allows the Red Cross to send SMS through their country-wide network.

The International Organization for Migration, which leads camp management, and the Haiti Department of Civil Protection are planning to extend the SMS preparedness campaign, according to OCHA.

In March IFRC sent SMS messages to millions of people to announce a measles, diphtheria and tetanus vaccination campaign. One upgrade IFRC and the mobile provider are working on will enable IFRC to pinpoint a spot on a map and reach people within a certain distance, Reader said.

“This is really important, using this means to reach people,” Reginald Barbier, a student in the capital Port-au-Prince, told IRIN.

“Generally we’ve gotten information like this on TV and radio, but some people do not always have access to that. But just about every Haitian has a mobile phone.”

In the final message in the week-long preparedness series, IFRC provides a free line - *733 - "for more information on how you and your family can prepare for emergencies". The line gives recorded messages, changed periodically, about preparedness, health, hygiene and other subjects, Reader said. She said currently the line receives about 500 calls per day.

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
Calixte Jocelyn charges telephone batteries for a small fee at a camp for displaced families in Port-au-Prince (file photo). Haitians say just about everyone has a mobile phone so they receive disaster preparedness text messages

Other NGOs, including Oxfam, have set up phone lines for questions and feedback. Oxfam received over 1,400 calls between March and May on a line it has set up for Haitians go give feedback on relief efforts, according to the NGO's Julie Schindall.

“It is open to everyone... Anybody can call it, and remain anonymous if need be,” she told IRIN. “We put up signs in camps where we work, publicizing the number and encouraging people to call with feedback or questions.”

Land searches

IFRC is also using SMS to help tackle what aid workers say is one of the greatest challenges in Haiti’s clean-up and recovery: land shortages.

“The biggest challenge for agencies [providing shelter] continues to be the lack of available land on which to build, either because land is blocked by debris or because of land ownership issues,” OCHA said.

IFRC is doing the first-ever SMS assessment for shelter, Reader said. A series of questions and answers via SMS will identify people who own land and who have space for a shelter.

“This project will not only help decongest a camp but alleviate tensions by directing those without land to a free Red Cross information line which will provide information about shelter plans within the camp.”

She said the two-way SMS assessments will yield a list of people and contacts for carrying out a more detailed investigation.

“It does not remove the need to eventually meet with people and see the land and ownership documents,” Reader said. “But it speeds things up - rather than going tent to tent with a clipboard.”

Reader said while high-tech is great, for effective communications it’s about finding the best approach for the situation. “If that’s a town meeting or a bulletin board, that’s great too.”