Drones with cameras have been used in aid efforts after the recent earthquake in Nepal. The machines, used by the charity Global Medic, are just one example of a larger movement in which technology is used in disaster response.
The images of disaster-stricken areas provide vital information to aid agencies, shedding light on the situation in areas cut off by landslides. Rahul Singh, the charity’s director, explained that his drones had also been deployed in the Philippines.
Technology companies are also solving the problem of communication in the aftermath of a disaster. The focus has been on keeping mobile phones working after the local networks have collapsed.
“I don’t know of any other means of communication where you could reach that many people, that quickly and that directly,” stated Sharon Reader, a communications adviser for the International Red Cross. Mobile use has grown rapidly in the developing world: around 7 billion people now have access to a mobile phone.
One invention, built in response to the Haiti disaster, is “mesh networking”. This technology allows the transmission of texts, calls and files between mobile phones, over short distances, even if network coverage is unavailable. In the network, each mobile phone or “node” relays data for the network, so that all nodes cooperate in the distribution of data.
Communication is essential to modern relief efforts. Last year, solar-powered phone chargers were air-dropped by the RAF to Yazidi refugees in Iraq, prioritising mobile phones almost as highly as food, water and lighting.
While restoring contact with disaster struck areas is key, “the big nut that people are trying to crack” is data organisation, according to Kim Scriven, the manager of the Human Innovation Fund. This question has inspired many companies. One popular approach, taken by the Ushahidi crowd-sourcing project, is to create an online map.
While there is plenty of progress still to be made, disaster relief has changed massively in the past few years. Technology, already influential, is likely to become even more important.