How is a phone app bringing shelter to families affected by Typhoon Haiyan?

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In the Philippino province of Ilo Ilo, a smartphone app is helping the Red Cross kick off an ambitious plan to build or repair homes caught up in the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan. The innovative technology is just one part of a far-ranging programme, run by the British Red Cross and Philippines Red Cross, set to help tens of thousands of people affected by last year’s disaster.

Philippines Red Cross volunteers are interviewing people in typhoon-hit communities to find out exactly where help is needed, and recording the results using the British Red Cross-designed app. And the switch from paper notes to digital technology is dramatically speeding up a vital step in the recovery process.

The app records data including damage to each house, and how many people are living there. Are there children or older people, and is anyone in the house earning money? Answers to these and other questions help find out how vulnerable people are – and who is most in need of help.

The easy-to-use app:

  • makes it quick and simple for volunteers to record details about people and their homes
  • easily maps the exact location of each household using GPS technology
  • lets volunteers add pictures, taken using the smartphone, to their reports.

Instant information

At the end of every day, data from the phones is uploaded to the internet. Staff in the Philippines and at British Red Cross headquarters in London can then use it to plan the recovery effort. On just one day last week, volunteers uploaded information from 250 households within hours of collecting it.

Simon Johnson, British Red Cross technical project co-ordinator, says: “Imagine the amount of data entry that would be needed if that was recorded on paper. But we got it through instantly – that’s an awesome thing.”

Quick, accurate information will do more than speed up support for people affected by the typhoon – it means help will reach those most in need. Volunteers using the app are set to visit 50,000 people.

Young, tech-savvy volunteers

Dozens of local volunteers have already been trained to use the app, and more will join them in the months ahead. Learning to use it only takes a couple of hours.

Most of the volunteers are in their teens or twenties. They’re a technology-savvy generation in a country with one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world – so for many, getting to grips with the new app is easy.

Of course, some are more technology-savvy than others. But by looking at the data each volunteer enters during their training session, experts like Simon can instantly see who is having problems with the system and give them extra help.

Simon thinks the innovative app will soon be used far beyond the villages of Ilo Ilo. “This could be a standard approach for recovery programmes in the future.”