Growing the Internet 7 October 2015

The Internet as a lifeline in Asia-Pacific

By Noelle Francesca De GuzmanDirector, Policy and External Engagement

Disaster management is becoming more and more prominent in the region’s policy agenda—and with good reason. UNESCAP in a recent report noted that more than half of the world’s 226 natural disasters in 2014 occurred in Asia-Pacific. Active tectonic plate movements in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, areas that also generate a lot of tropical typhoons, combined with increasingly denuded forests have made the region the most disaster-prone in the world. Perhaps more alarmingly, the study found that Asia-Pacific countries are largely ill-equipped to deal with these crises.

This may soon change, with the help of technology. Around the region, numerous pilots seek to help developing countries monitor shifting temperatures and weather conditions—water levels, soil moisture, wind speed, rainfall rate—using solar powered sensors and cheap, tiny, single board computers like Raspberry Pi. These early warning systems can transmit data wirelessly through mobile networks and satellite links to a central server, helping to detect impending hazards like landslides and flash floods.

In Vanuatu, ICTs were widely credited as instrumental to minimising the death toll from Cyclone Pam. As the category 5 cyclone approached the country, several government agencies, working with mobile operators, drew up a plan to coordinate evacuation and recovery. A task force was formed, additional staff contracted, and free SMS alerts sent to citizens throughout the archipelago. Communications infrastructure was badly affected, but satellite phones dispatched in advance allowed first responders to organise relief efforts. Cyclone Pam, despite being one of the most powerful to hit the South Pacific, suffered 11 casualties—much lower than the 1987 category 4 cyclone that struck Vanuatu and left 48 dead.

ICTs were just as useful in the wake of the violent earthquake in Nepal in April. The tremors, which flattened entire villages and displaced close to half a million people, mobilised the global community to act, in no small part through online channels. Internet giants Google and Facebook each deployed tools that let individuals post or search for updates on friends and relatives in the country. Telecom carriers and VoIP applications offered free mobile and landline calls to Nepal, and regional e-commerce firms like Paytm collected donations for earthquake victims.

Thousands of volunteers across the world, including Nepalese expatriates, plotted feeds from social media networks, news and satellite images onto online maps. On the ground, groups like the World Food Programme turned to lightweight, inflatable mobile data antennas, which look like big beach balls, to restore connectivity in remote locations, allowing aid workers to collect, upload and verify information. Geo-tagging enabled platforms like ShakeMap to continuously show the disaster’s impact in real-time, giving a clearer picture of which roads were blocked, or who was stranded where—much like Ushaidi had done during the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Online connectivity was essential particularly when phone lines became congested, and survivors relied on the Internet to reach out to their loved ones.

Such emergencies highlight the value of low-cost and low-energy networks that can be deployed easily, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when communication is most critical. Nepal, for instance largely preserved its international connectivity throughout the quake and its 300 aftershocks. Much of the damage was at the last mile which, along with severed power lines, impaired the average person’s ability to go online.  

One solution lies in systems that can connect with each other even when the Internet is down. Commotion Wireless, for instance has developed an open source software that allow devices to communicate peer to peer using unlicensed spectrum, forming a mesh network that is highly redundant, and capable of sharing an Internet connection that is beamed or made available close by.

A similar idea in the Philippines takes resilience a step further. Showcased at the 12th APT ICT Development Forum last month, the project, jointly conducted by university-based Ateneo Innovation Centre, the DOST ICT Office and Japanese partners, employs mobile transponders that relay urgent messages from victims and rescuers to vehicles roving disaster areas. Equipped with one terabyte near-cloud servers, the latter will act as computing nodes, aggregating information that can be passed on to other vehicles until it reaches the global Internet.

A crucial ingredient to this concept is delay-tolerant networks, which incrementally store and move data along until it gets to its destination—a good option for places that lack reliable and instantaneous bandwidth. But perhaps even more crucial are policies that enable innovators to test and scale technologies that may be useful in disaster relief and preparation. As an example, many of these initiatives are pushing to have freer use of TV white space or more broadly, frequencies in the 700 to 800 Mhz bands, which have wider coverage and can penetrate through metres of debris.

The onset of climate change can only mean more frequent, unpredictable and severe cyclones, droughts, avalanches and tsunamis that injure hundreds and cause devastation that may take years, if not decades to repair. ICTs are becoming more advanced, available and in many ways cheaper but at the end of the day, these tools are precisely, tools. It is the human component—coordination, collaboration and trust between various stakeholders—that make technologies work before, during and after every calamity.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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