In just over two weeks, Nepal has been hit by two catastrophic earthquakes, which have caused mass casualties and unimaginable amounts of property damage.
The chronically impoverished nation lacks the infrastructure to deal with disasters, which has multiplied the challenges involved in getting aid to the quakes’ victims. Today, the International Red Cross announced a partnership with Nepal Telecom to utilize one of the few technologies that did provide relief in the wake of the disaster: SMS text messaging.
Because SMS is a relatively low-tech communication protocol, messages can be sent even over a weak connection, and because it’s asynchronous, they can go out whenever a phone catches a scrap of signal. After the first earthquake in Nepal on April 25th, services like WhatsApp and Viber, both of which use very little bandwidth, turned out to be much more reliable than phone calls or emails as a way to verify that friends and loved ones were okay.
The Red Cross’s partnership with Nepal Telecom uses geotracking technology to send targeted text messages about flooding, landslides, and emergency supply updates to millions of Nepalese. In a press release, the Nepal Red Cross Society estimated the SMS system would reach 1.1 million users initially.
Joel Selanikio, the CEO of Magpi, which produces data collection apps for use in disaster areas, told Fast Company that making sure products like these work even while offline is crucial. “Users in urban areas are connected all the time and don’t give it a second thought,” he says. “You probably have an iPhone or an Android phone right now that’s getting reception. But that’s not a given in much of the world.”
While most Silicon Valley developers assume their users will have steady data connections, many developers in emerging economies such as China and India know that isn’t the case. “Burundi only has 1% or 2% Internet penetration,” says Brian Conley, whose company Small World News produces a citizen journalism app called StoryMaker designed to be used in low-bandwidth environments. “In order to succeed, we needed something which could be used offline.”
One Silicon Valley company that has been developing products with the developing world in mind is Facebook. Sree Sreenivasan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chief digital officer (and one of this year’s Most Creative People in business) has written extensively on digital best practices, and emphasized to Fast Company how seamlessly Facebook’s automatic check-ins worked after the first Nepali earthquake. With just a single click, users could notify loved ones they were alive and well–taking up far less bandwidth than a phone call.
Low-tech disaster response mechanisms have gotten a boost from at least one more big patron this week: Days after the earthquake, the BBC launched an emergency information service on Viber with messages for earthquake victims in both Nepali and English.