How mobile phones can help society manage major emergencies

The catastrophic events that have hit Japan are a long way from being over but I think the least we should do is take from the experience of one of the worlds most advanced mobile markets to help us all better prepare for future emergencies. In a bid to help with this I’ve decided to compile a post that can bring together examples of best practice on ways mobile phones and network technologies are and can be used to alleviate suffering and help communities prospects if they are affected by such disasters.

As I think it could become a useful resource this post will be updated as I become aware of other opportunities, if you have any you would like to contribute please post them in the comments below and I will update the list (attributing them to you of course).

Japan and Korea are the global leaders with regard to this eg. in Japan 90% of mobile subscribers use mobile data services (over half of those in their 70’s) and in Korea they have telcos working to train seniors to use mobile phones

But I’ve also seen some great things being done in European markets that prioritise the needs of senior and disabled citizens eg. the brands that make and market devices (eg Doro, Emporia) and smartphone software (eg Ambila)

Japan’s ability to keep voice channels free for emergency services (data only for the rest of the population) was only effective in Japan BECAUSE of government support and commitment to the education of citizens to the benefits of mobile data services.

In regions where mobile data adoption is much lower this causes major problems as the volumes of in/outbound calls quickly jam/overload the networks. Because of this design challenge efforts should be made to educate on the use of SMS/mobile data services. Likewise authorities should be encouraged to develop their capacity in this area eg. by actively supporting Emergency SMS services.

a) Donations: Effective and transparent ways to enable other citizens help financially support victims

a) A live register mobile numbers could be used to identify citizens and property. Obviously this is going to be easier in countries like Estonia (who have electoral voting) but we shouldn’t wait on bureaucrats to get their act together. Clinics should be registering their patients mobile numbers anyway and this would be an additional way this database could help citizens.

b) Educate citizens about the benefits of marking themselves with mobile #’s. In a similar initiative mobile numbers can be used to identify individuals and their next of kin. Citizens could be encouraged to mark themselves with mobile numbers in semipermanent ink eg. a child/patients arm could have their Next of Kin information embedded in an QR code alongside their mobile number and attached to their arm as with a plaster.

c) Identify potential blood donors and their location/health status eg. “Hi Mr Doherty, Blood supplies are in very short supply. Please consider attending AnyWhere Hospital to donate”.

d) Identity Chains: Encourage citizens to list information with their network operator identifying their connections. Network operators offering “mates rate” packages could encourage take up of this where there are citizens who are unconcerned about natural disaster issues. For parents the service could provide authority to share the childs location.

e) Personnel/skills: Identifying who can do what in the event of an emergency could mobilise resources

f) : Enabling the sharing and collation of local paper based records, registers, requests for assistance via a MMS drop box enabling central administrative records to be constructed

g) Text message based replacement of missing persons phone lines

h) Text message based replacement of emergency voicemail message boards

i) SMS based question/answer service enabling citizens to get answers from web based volunteers eg. “What is the number of the US embassy?”

The need for voice is clear but who gets it and when needs to be tightly controlled as capacity is typically going to be limited.

By building broadcast capacity into Voice, SMS and MMS networks will be more capable of delivering individual messages.

a) Warning’s

Very few regions have public broadcast SMS functionality and the trouble only starts when trying to send SMS to everyone in an area (regardeless of operator). Public license rights should entail that systems are designed to broadcast SMS (and video) content. Likewize mobile devices should be capable of determining and sharing their location and accept broadcast SMS.

Consistent emergency information SMS numbers should also be established for sending emergency notifications to ensure maximal opportunity for the message to be delivered and help prevent issues associated with hoax messages.

b) Emergency SMS

This is already seeing very positive adoption

c) Knowledge Sharing: a great tool was developed by Google, but why not have this on a easy to remember SMS shortcode.

d) Hoax Control

Hoax SMS messages have become widespread even as far away as Singapore highlighting the need for consistent messaging channels from governments even outside the region directly affected. One example would be the “Radioactive Rain from Japan Warnings” that are misleading citizens with false “chain mail style” alarms “If it rains tomorrow or later, don’t go outside. If you are outside, be sure that you have rain protectors. It’s acid rain. Don’t let it touch you. You may burn your skin, lose your hair or have cancer. Please pass, stay safe and remind everyone you know”

a) Identifying where people went missing and where they are reporting they are ok (don’t send your limited search/rescue teams to areas where citizens are reporting no problems).

b) Resource Deployment

Where needed (based on population density/profile in areas and where citizens are reporting needs). This is incredibly important when you appreciate how quickly medical bandages/fluids/blood supplies are going to be depleted in the event of an incident.

c) Monitoring of what’s being done

Search teams should be supported by location based tools eg Mobidarm (Mapping the upMapped)

d) Transit status live updates

e) Shelter/food distribution centre information

a) Educational videos

Similar to the instructional inflight safety videos, here’s the start of what we hope to become a comprehensive list (please add any you can think of in the comments below):

“General Health Advice in light of the new circumstances”, “Why you need to take Iodine”, “how to keep warm”, “Maintaining your hygiene”, “Things to be careful of”, “Guide to living in sheltered accommodation”, “Coping with bereavement”…

“What we’re doing – a message from the Prime Minister”, “What’s happened”, “Updates”, “How you can help”…

b) Central channel for citizens to publish videos for international press

As it becomes clear that even in a country as affluent as Japan medical staff have abandoned hospitalised patients, and that food, water, heating oil and medication supplies to those in sheltered accommodation have been in short supply. Citizen media emanating from these overlooked citizens in sheltered accommodation could offer enormous potential for this as it would apply pressure on governments to reach everyone eg. it would probably be much harder for government officials to state that it felt “helpless and very sorry for them” whilst powerful media from citizens made it out to the worlds press.

a) Backup

All mobile networks should be designed to run on backup power, and there are some key opportunities for telcos to be connectivity/power suppliers in times of shortage:

b) Citizen notification of supply/availability

SMS is a great way of informing citizens of power rotations, water availability, fuel availability, etc which can increase productivity at this time of urgent need eg. instead of waiting in line at fuel stations they can be participating in recovery efforts.

a) Device Manufacturing

b) Device Branding/Personalisation

c) Biosensors

Frontline SMS:


NTT Docomo: Message board


USSD: Is a functionality of all GSM mobiles that enables phones to be flashed with information yet is faster than SMS and doesn’t weigh down the data or voice channels. Combined with cell broadcasting it can be used to message all mobiles currently linked to a mobile mast. Alternatively it can be used to provide information to citizens by simply requesting them to dial a non-answering number which then initiates a USSD session back to their mobile (these often look like codes and are familiar in markets where there is a lot of use for prepaid devices eg. to check account balance etc).

Zipdial: enables “missed calls” to enable data capture eg. a live register could be created by logging phone calls made to a number

Willcom-Inc Registered SMS Safety Service Guide:

Service Outline
At the time of a disaster outbreak such as earthquakes registering 6- or stronger on the Japanese scale, you may register messages concerning your safety from WILLCOM mobile phones. (except for some models) You may confirm safety registered messages from another mobile operator’s phones, or PCs and you may reply to safety messages.
How to Use
* Registration of a message
You may register messages concerning your safety by selecting a pre-defined comment such as “Safety.” You may write a message up to 100 characters for this option. Registration can be done for up to 10 messages. In case you register messages above this number, the oldest messages will be deleted first. Messages may be stored until the end of a service that was opened during a disaster.
* Deletion of a message
You may delete your registered safety messages.
* Auto Notify
You may send your messages to pre-defined e-mail addresses. In case you register e-mail addresses to be notified of your messages, e-mail notifications may be automatically sent. Up to 10 e-mail addresses may be registered.
* Reply
You may reply to messages by clicking on the link attached in e-mail notifications. For one message, you can register up to five messages.
Attention in the use
* WILLCOM mobile phone subscribers may register, delete messages, send email notifications.
* When a disaster occurs during the trial service period, we will shift service to disaster mode. In this case, messages registered during the trial service period may be deleted.
* WILLCOM, Inc shall bear no responsibility for malfunctions caused by access obstacles.
* WILLCOM, Inc will take no responsibility for malfunctions incurred due to heavy access traffic to the service or due to equipment failure, damages incurred by failure, damage, etc. of registered messages, regardless of the causes.
* When inappropriate use of the service was confirmed by WILLCOM Inc, There is a case where a message was deleted without prior notice to a registrant until after the fact.

13 Responses to How mobile phones can help society manage major emergencies

  1. 3 b) iInitially read “Mark citizens with mobile #’s” I’ve changed it to read “Educate citizens about the benefits of marking themselves with mobile #’s”.

    Thanks to for pointing out this very poor choice of wording.

  2. Thanks for this post. I think these are great ideas worth exploring. Everybody has a personal mobile device, why not utilise that as an emergency tool. As image maker, I especially like the idea of emergency mobile video content. Why not – and why hasn’t it been done as a guide for emergency scenarios and administering medicines, until the proper support arrive? It’s pretty obvious.

    • Hi Zarina, I think you’ll find that a lot of things are being done it’s just we haven’t heard about them yet. That’s why I think this post is a good idea that can be built upon. I’ll be updating it as and when I hear more and welcome your contributions as I’m more than happy to expand on the post substantially to the point where it might be useful to use it to post a wikipedia entry on something like “how mobiles can help in major emergency”.

      What type of videos do you think would be helpful? I can think of a few obvious ones eg. “Living in temporary accommodation”, “What we’re doing – a message from the Prime Minister”, “How you can help”, “Coping with grief” but it might be helpful for to try and make an exhaustive list as there are lots of things that I am sure would be easily overlooked by emergency workers when they are tired, stressed and trying to handle their own personal issues as a result of a major incident.

  3. Got some great feedback from members of the Forum Oxford Next Generation Mobile Applications Panel ( – it’s a great free mobile industry community) that I’ve tried my best to represent into an update of the above. Here are the contributions they’ve made in full (obviously if you can expand on these or help express them better than I please comment with your suggestions):

    Giff Gfoerer (

    Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Simplicity is the greatest sophistication”.
    During disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Virginia Tech Tragedy, people could not call in or call out of these service areas as the towers were jammed and overloaded. However, as SMS travels on a different channel than voice and data, the service channel, SMS continued to work seamlessly and effortlessly. Those in need could contact the outside world via SMS and those on the outside world could reach those in the afflicted areas via SMS.
    For those in need, they need a central number to contact. The carriers could even implement an emergency message to all of their subscribers asking if they need help. This could take a very long time to respond to all the ones in need, but they could at least be in contact with the outside world.

    Jonathan Marks (

    I note that is Ushahidi and Google rather than broadcasters who are taking the initatives to map disasters and help act as a public signpost to sources of help. In an ideal world there would be a hybrid solution, where information for everyone would be broadcast and sms and voice networks can focus on individual messages. But as Forum Oxford has pointed out many times, the language of broadcasters and the mobile industry quite often do not overlap. I see some hope with services like Frontline SMS, but its slow.

    Werner Egipsy Souza (

    I have been evaluating, for a long time now, from a mobile data capturing perspective, but I realise that for the purpose mentioned above, this service of using missed calls for data capture, would really be able to help logging of affected parties during major emergencies.

    Simon Cavill (

    USSD to flash consumers phones: It’s faster than SMS and again does not make use of either the data or voice channels. You can also use cell broadcasting to flash all phones currently attached to that mast (or masts). Again you can easily deploy USSD to provide information to citizens by simply getting them to dial a non-answering number that then initiates a USSD session back to their mobile.

  4. […] – 311 report. At 3G Doctor, David Doherty takes a look at the big picture, with the very useful How mobile phones can help society manage major emergencies. While text-to-donate is playing an increasingly important role in disaster relief, the big picture […]

  5. Jean-Marc says:

    In fact, the mobile can more to help patient, most of preconisations of Continua health Alliance are not necessary or are incompletes.
    i propose something else for tracability of care(emergency )or not (for most of the chroniques disease).
    it could work with facebook* health, twitter, with automatique e-procurement for treatement and material of care. if you are a conceptor for diagnostic device (glycémia ,etc) and /or therapeutic device, i would to propose this idea.
    I am nurse since 1991 …Intensive care , oncology,etc…

  6. This article is really valuable. Mobile phones can be so useful during a natural disaster; even simple SMS’s can be so effective in notifying people of potential catastrophic situations. SMS is also so incredibly useful in notifying people of health warnings, diagnosis and treatment options, for more information on this, see ‘How SMS Can Affect Medicine in Africa in Future’

  7. redcross says:


    […]How mobile phones can help society manage major emergencies « mHealth Insight: the blog of 3G Doctor[…]…

  8. […] > Highlight the success of mobile adoption by senior audiences in the Japanese market where the telco initiatives have focused on “Respect for Senior Citizens Day”. This was the first market in the world to have a senior mobile (the Panasonic P601es in 1999), a market where everyone today is using 3G, more than 90% of those aged 60+ use mobile data services and more than 50% use mobile email and the Raku-Raku mobiles are a Billion dollar market. It’s particularly interesting from a healthcare perspective when you appreciate that mobile data service adoption by seniors in Japan made it possible for the country to switch off public access to voice networks so that it wasn’t congested and could support emergency response team communications (click here for more on how society can use mobiles in emergencies). […]

  9. […] thinks this opportunity is something that needs to be opted into. I would have hoped that the Japanese Tsunami or the recent Superstorm Sandy (in the USA) would have put paid to this concept eg. SMS’s […]

  10. […] led the rush to adopt Smartphones, this can be of invaluable help (in the delivery of healthcare). When the Tsunami hit Japan voice networks were turned off and reallocated for the coordination of th…. Mobile Data services could be used by geriatric Patients because +80% of Japanese senior citizens […]

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