When Natural Disasters Wipe Out Communication Networks, This Messaging App Could Help

Posted on October 19, 2015 in Sci-Tech

By Marina Azcarate

Technology is a beautiful thing: with the small machines in our pockets we can buy a plane ride to the other side of the world, order a cab and some pizza, maybe even swipe right for a date.

But when communication is really critical, for example in the middle of a natural disaster, we have to rely on technology that is at least thirty years old. From New Orleans to New York, Kashmir, Tacloban and Kathmandu, we know how floods, typhoons and earthquakes can quickly wipe out the telecom networks that are our communication lifeline for survival. Then even the humble SMS doesn’t work. All that is left in those situations are devices like satellite phones and ham radios, too expensive to buy and difficult to operate for most of us.

FireChat Manila Students

We need a new way to share critical, life-saving information, in real time and on a large-scale even when all networks are down. People bake their own bread, grow their own vegetables and generate electricity on their roofs. Why can’t they also harness the power of their smartphones at the time when they need it the most?

The solution may already be here. FireChat, is a free mobile messaging app that works even when networks are down. It connects mobiles phones to one another through Bluetooth and Peer-to-Peer Wi-Fi and lets people establish their own peer-to-peer networks that work independently of traditional networks. These new types of networks can be used on an everyday basis for free communication and also as a lifeline in times of emergency when all other networks are destroyed.

The Philippines and French Polynesia are among the first countries to adopt this technology, with the support of their respective governments. Their goal is to create ‘citizen communication networks’ that are disaster-proof.

It is not a coincidence that both are island nations with fragile geographies. Those countries are taking a hard reality-check of the future and it is cruel. They have contributed next to nothing to warming the world, yet will pay a disproportionate price for the changing climate with unpredictable, stronger and more frequent typhoons and hurricanes. In a sense, they are already living in the future: weather patterns are becoming unstable and there is an urgent need to harness technology in innovative ways towards disaster preparedness at scale.

Copy of TyphoonWatch3Jeepneys are van-like trucks used everywhere in the Philippines to transport people. They are brightly painted and stylish. Passengers sit facing each other: ten, twelve or fifteen across two long benches. In Tacloban, we sat facing a man who was maybe in his fifties or seventies: it was impossible to tell. The look in his eyes was of infinite sadness. For a long time, we wondered what had happened to him, or his family on that terrible Friday in November almost two years ago when the city was devastated by one of the most powerful typhoons or ‘storm-surges’ ever recorded. The moment the storm hit, all cell networks stopped working and communication across the city became impossible. People could not be warned, could not be reached, could not call for help or even be rescued when help was available.

The Philippines are home to a vibrant community of civic leaders, weather experts, scientists such as Dr Mahar Lagmay and development practitioners doing brilliant work in preparing communities for disaster. Filipinos call it the ‘Zero Casualty’ paradigm. A crucial part of this ambitious effort is to pioneer new communication mechanisms that help warn populations in real time. We are honoured to contribute to this forward-thinking movement by offering a communication alternative that could become a lifeline in critical moments.

Disaster-proof communications are not just about ‘resilience’, they are also about taking charge: life is fragile in the face of the wild, primitive forces that are the rain, the wind, the sea, and seismic shifts. Yet everyone wants to feel strong and empowered. Everyone wants to be able to take care of themselves, of their family, their friends and neighbours when emergency strikes.

FireChat users in The Philippines and Polynesia are already acting on this principle. We predict that in the future, this aspiration will be shared everywhere in the world and that peer-to-peer technologies like FireChat will become ubiquitous.

About the author: Marina Azcarate is Head of Global Marketing at Open Garden, which is a pioneer in peer-to-peer mesh networking technology and the creator of FireChat, the first mobile messaging app that works even if there is no Internet access or cellular phone coverage. FireChat is available for iOS and Android at getfirechat.com