SMS alerts during emergencies – Lessons from Sri Lanka’s tsuanmi alert on 13 September 2007

Schools in Galle, some in Colombo were closed today. The newspaper headlines did not, to the extend that I read them, show any methodical movement of people to higher ground and safe spaces. They showed people who were confused, running away with their belongings and praying in places of worship. The religious may find solace in prayer, but Government cannot be hostage to the foibles of the gods. This is precisely why we were repeatedly told that disaster management plans are in place and that the next tsunami, should or when it occurred, would find Sri Lanka well prepared to meet the emergency.

This myth has already been questioned.

What I found interesting about the hours from 6 – 8.30 last night and again from around 5.30 to 7 this morning was that my primary mode of information on earthquakes and tsunami warnings came from SMS alerts. They came from two sources but from multiple phones. The two sources were Reuters news alerts on Dialog and JNW news, which I also received on Dialog. The third was the same SMSs recirculated amongst friends and colleagues.

I have about 35 incoming messages for this period and I must have sent at least twice that number to friends with mobiles I did not know were subscribes to either SMS news alerts service.

I’ve reviewed and written about the JNW SMS news service many times on this blog, and I must say that I found it to be a tad more useful than the Reuters news alerts, for which I registered free about two or three months ago. From the first alert on Reuters of an earthquake to the first tsunami warning took well over an hour on my number (I was in Colombo 7) and after that, there were a lot of SMSs with quotes from officials in the Disaster Managament Centre that weren’t terribly useful after one knew about the tsunami warning.

Far more useful may have been to send some basic guidelines about what to do, even where to go to, useful websites with updated information (the Department of Meteorology has a rather suspect website that looks as if it was done on Frontpage 98 that gives tsunami alerts, tellingly, in English and Sinhala only) or some hotline numbers (Colombo as well as regional) to call if one wanted more information.

Basic stuff that many around me didn’t know.

Chamath Ariyadasa, the Editor of JNW, has written an insightful account of his experiences last evening in responding to the tsunami warnings through SMS alerts. There’s already been a lot of discussion on the use of SMS’s in emergencies and in early warning.

I had also read about the use of cell broadcasts – so that all users of a mobile network in a given area would get SMS’s delivered in a manner that bypassed network congestion. Did this occur in the areas most vulnerable to the tsuanmi?

While I got a steady stream of SMS’s – there was no way I could tell when they were sent out. I could send out SMS’s through my phone, but by around 6.15, the voice network was clogged in Colombo 7 all the way to Nugegoda and calls down South were impossible.

Clearly, SMS is here to stay and next to radio is perhaps the most accessible means of disseminating information rapidly amongst a large population (TV doesn’t really work – needs electricity, needs to be switched on and no one lugs them around for news alerts). The tsunami warning scenario yesterday was the first time in Sri Lanka where my primary mode of news and information on an unfolding situation spread over a couple of hours was through SMS.

It may be a harbinger of things to come.

Also read:
Lessons from Nagapattinum: Post-Tsunami and the Panchayat
SMS news alerts during emergencies – The experience of JNW and the tsunami warning of 13th September 2007

A conversation with Daniel Stauffacher on ICT4Peace and how it can help conflict resolution

Do you believe that the better use of technology can strengthen peace processes to the extent that there will be more peace 5 years hence than today?

Yes indeed. ICTs and in particular web 2.0 will create even more transparency and efficient tools for actors in the field of conflict prevention, mediation, conflict resolution and peace building.

An interview I conducted with Daniel Stauffacher, with whom I work with at the ICT4Peace Foundation, that address key challenges and opportunities in Information and Communications Technology for conflict mitigation.

Daniel Stauffacher

The interview, conducted over email, covers a broad range of issues including international aid coordination, the role of technology in peacebuilding and the challenges of putting into action policies adopted by WSIS in support of ICT4Peace.

Read the full interview here.

For an audio podcast with Daniel, conducted in 2006 at the site of Strong Angel III, please click here. (Download directly from here.)

Thoughts on USIP’s civilian military relations guidelines

The United States Institute of Peace along with Interaction recently released a set of Guidelines for Relations between US Armed Forces and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organisations in Hostile or Potentially Hostile Environments. References in this post require that you download this document.

They are well written and comprehensive and a useful addition to the vexed challenges of civilian-military relations especially in theatres of conflict. Given my personal interest in this as yet embryonic field and my previous work on SSTR, I jotted down some notes as I was reading through the guidelines.

The first and most obvious to note is that the document specifically deals with the US military. It is fairly clear that civilian military relations with non-US forces will necessitate different approaches. Armies for example that stand accused of deliberately and consistently violating human rights and are also key actors in a conflict do not present themselves as actors humanitarian agencies will willingly interface with. In this sense, the US Armed Forces are an exception, though there is already documentation on how some other professional armed forces approach civilian military relations.

Point #7 under Section A ends on a vital point that I’ve often stressed – that perception is as or oftentimes more important than reality. This was brought out in the Strong Angel III civilian military meetings report as well. However, the guidelines seem to contradict this point in the next section. Point #2 under Section B states that “NGHO travel in US Armed Forces vehicles should be limited to liaison personnel to the extent practical”. I would imagine that no one from NGHOs should ever be seen using vehicles belonging to the military unless it is explicitly clear in the minds of all stakeholders including aid recipients and local communities as to why such a course of action is necessary.

Point #2 under Section 2 points to the need to share unclassified information with NGHOs, but neglects to mention a reciprocal responsibility of NGHOs to alert the Armed Forces on ground conditions such as the mood of communities, sources of discontent, perceptions and rumours as well as socio-political and cultural dynamics that remote sensing, satellite imagery and military intelligence may not always ascertain with the degree of veracity that long-standing NGHO operations in the field often demonstrate (though this concern is partly addressed in Point #3 under Section C).

Point #4 of Section C could in most occasions contradict Point #6 under Section A. NGHOs will often work with communities or section of local communities regarding as military threats. Modern day intra-state conflict no longer offer NGHOs or the military easy definitions of civilians and armed combatants. Accordingly, in extremis situations that involve such actors who may be classified as threats will invariably vitiate vital logistics support by the military for some critical humanitarian operations.

Option #1 under Section B is a complete non-starter in my opinion. No one that I know of in NGHOs will be comfortable giving information to the Department of Defense or a US Government website, particularly if it includes information on groups proscribed by the State Department which by definition the US cannot be seen to be supporting in any way. While Options 2 and 3 are viable, it occurred to me Wikis, Webs and Networks: Creating Connections for Conflict-Prone Settings offers many interesting perspectives that could feed into the content here.

On the same lines, Point #1 under Section C is a tad outmoded. What is more important to underscore here is connectivity and contactability rather than physical proximity. I’m not entirely convinced that placing NGHO liaison officers close to military headquarters is a good idea – technology today afford many ways in which geographical divides can be bridged. What is important to focus on is not bringing people physically closer together, but fostering greater information flows by stakeholders working in concert, connected through and participating in collaborative networks, along the lines of the One Text platform I helped develop in Sri Lanka.

Point #4 under Section C brings to mind the point that not all NGHOs are aware of all the guidelines, operational frameworks and mechanisms that govern their behaviour in, understanding of and approach to humanitarian aid situations as enumerated in the USIP document. The tsunami response for example saw a massive influx of NGHOs into Sri Lanka and Indonesia – few of them knew anything about collaboration, government and inter-agency liaison, collaboration, coordination and well established international and UN guidelines on aid delivery. The resulting chaos led to a familiar litany of issues including corruption and communal tensions.

The USIP guidelines end with a definition of NGHO “independence”. This is clearly easier said than done and also ignores reprehensible measures, that I personally have been subject to in Sri Lanka, that require blatant branding of initiatives and humanitarian aid funded by certain governments and bi-lateral funding agencies. It is a problem well articulated in Wary of Aid, an article that appeared in Newsweek in early 2005. Maintaining independence in a theatre of conflict is a daily challenge and is one that can deeply affect civilian military relations.

There is another challenge posed by the definition of independence in the USIP document. In stating that “NGHOs will never knowingly or through negligence allow themselves or their employees to be used to gather information of a political, military or economically sensitive nature for governments or other bodies that may serve purposes other than those that are strictly humanitarian” the document essentially brings to light the great difficulty NGHOs have in opening up to the military, since information they share with the best intent and interests to support humanitarian aid work can and probably will be used in military planning.

There is one last comment I’d make on these guidelines. I was disappointed to not see any emphasis or recognition of gender in the guidelines, an aspect that I along with the rest of the authors of SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field felt was crucial in designing civilian military liaison mechanisms and frameworks.

In fact, though SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field predates these guidelines, not only does it complement them but in many instances fleshes out in greater detail how certain points can be operationalised in the field.

Many points on civilian military relations in general with a bearing on a critical appreciation of these guidelines can be found in the posts on this blog referenced below. The USIP guidelines are clearly a step in the right direction, but as ever, the devil is in the details and operationalising these guidelines in real world scenarios.

Also read:

Soldiers and State-Building

SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field

Strong Angel III – Final observations

Launch of ICT4Peace inventory wiki: A global database ICT in crisis management, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding


27th August 2007, Geneva, Switzerland: The ICT4Peace Foundation is pleased to announce the launch of its ICT4Peace Inventory Wiki, accessible immediately from

The ICT4Peace inventory wiki is one of three key foci of the ICT4Peace Foundation. It will be updated regularly and highlight emerging best practices from the field, significant research initiatives and well-grounded examples of ICT4Peace as defined in the Foundation’s mandate. This will include cataloguing at least 100 existing ICT tools and mechanisms – operational, legal and conceptual – geared towards conflict mitigation. The inventorisation will include initiatives identified by the report on ICT4peace by the ICT4Peace Foundation published in 2005, along with more recent examples from around the world in the use of ICT for conflict mitigation using PC’s, mobile phones, the web and the Internet.

“This tool provides a comprehensive overview of the many ways in which ICT is already used in crisis management.” said Daniel Stauffacher, Chairman of the ICT4Peace Foundation on the occasion of the launch of the launch of the ICT4Peace Inventory Wiki. He went on to say that “Over time, it will be an invaluable resource for policy makers, academia as well a practitioners in the field to share and learn from best practices and examples of ICT4Peace across the world.”

The ICT4Peace process spearheaded by the Foundation aims to enhance the performance of the international community in crisis management through the application of information and Communications Technology (ICT) – technologies that can facilitate effective and sustained communication between peoples, communities and stakeholders involved in crisis management, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding. Crisis management is defined, for the purposes of this process, as civilian and/or military intervention in a crisis that may be a violent or non-violent with the intention of preventing a further escalation of the crisis and facilitating its resolution.

Two other key foci of the Foundation are to enhance the performance of the international community in crisis management through ICT and develop templates for ICT, media and communications in conflict management. From 2007 – 2008, key partners in ICT4Peace will work with the United Nations, bilateral and multilateral donors, international NGOs, civil society organizations, academia and Universities as well as global business to establish ICT4Peace as integral to their approach to and understanding of crisis management. ICT4Peace will establish broad principles derived from operational best practices, integrate them into UN processes and make ICT part of UN evaluation exercises.

For more details on ICT4Peace and the Foundation’s work, please read our mission statement – The Foundation also has a growing library of content related to ICT4Peace and a list of events that can be accessed through its library and events database respectively. Please visit our website for more information –

We encourage you to get in touch with the Foundation with details of your work and to find out more about the ICT4Peace process. Please email Mr. Daniel Stauffacher, Chairman of the ICT4Peace Foundation, at

Technology, Context and Culture – The gap between intention and reality

The New York Times today has a story written by a mother trying to keep tabs on her family’s activities. Her travails with online calendering, group (in this case, her family) scheduling and information sharing are deeply resonant to anyone who has experienced the very same challenges in humanitarian aid and peacebuilding contexts.

Michelle finds that the best solutions in the web fail to convince her family to share information. Each member has a different priority and little time to learn or share information with no reciprocal gain. It is only when the hint of an unpleasant family meeting is mooted that everyone rushes to share information, but then too in a haphazard fashion that overwhelmed the system with information not really central to the outcome desired.

Any of this sound familiar? The author’s solution is a revealing lesson for those who design systems for complex humanitarian aid and peacebuilding processes.

Read more here.

Impact of technology on humanitarian work

While the joys of gadgetry may seem obvious to aid workers, how much has it really done to help victims? The full answer to that question has yet to emerge, and it is aid recipients who will give it. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, a group of agencies bent on learning from past mistakes, notes that “local people themselves provided almost all immediate life-saving action and the early-emergency support, as is commonly the case in disasters.”

Flood, famine and mobile phones, an article in the Economist deals with the impact, or lack thereof, of technology in humanitarian relief operations.

Also read:
ICT as a tool for Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management: Some pertinent questions

Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding
Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras

Launch of ICT4Peace: An International Process for Crisis Management

ICT4Peace Foundation

The ICT4Peace Foundation announced the launch of ICT4Peace: An International Process for Crisis Management today.

ICT4Peace aims to enhance the performance of the international community in crisis management through the application of information Communications Technology (ICT) – technologies that can facilitate effective and sustained communication between peoples, communities and stakeholders involved in crisis management, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding. Crisis management is defined, for the purposes of this process, as civilian and/or military intervention in a crisis that may be a violent or non-violent with the intention of preventing a further escalation of the crisis and facilitating its resolution. This definition covers peace mediation, peace-keeping and peace-building activities of the international community. In bridging the fragmentation between various organisations and activities during different crisis phases, ICT4Peace aims to facilitate a holistic, cohesive and collaborative mechanisms directly in line with Paragraph 36 of the WSIS Tunis Commitment.

Please read more about ICT4Peace here. Download the concept note and roadmap of ICT4Peace as an Adobe PDF here.

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