Red Cross works on global SMS application to improve communication with beneficiaries

This is a guest post by Amy Greber, social media officer at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). You can reach Amy at @amyswrite or @federation.

“Storm has passed but stay alert. Beware of new hazards, don’t touch power lines and stay away from flood water and bridges. Call 733 and stay tuned to the radio.” When a crisis hits, a simple text message can cut through the fog of uncertainty, helping you make an informed decision about how to respond.

Six billion mobile phone users

Mobile-enabled early warning systems are transforming the way humanitarian organisations deliver aid, and also how we build long-term resilience in concert with affected communities. With the International Telecommunication Union reporting nearly six billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide in 2011 – and a notable 79 per cent penetration in the developing world – the rise of mobile communication continues to shape aid innovation.

Success in Haiti

The TERA (Trilogy Emergency Relief Application) system is poised to expand within this humanitarian context. Born out of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti through our partnership with Trilogy International Partners, this SMS-based, two-way communication system enables the Red Cross to send blasts of messages to defined segments of a population. To date, we have sent 100 million messages to nearly 3.25 million people in Haiti with critical advice on cholera prevention, first aid and, most recently, Hurricane Sandy preparedness.

“Something as technologically basic as SMS has had a significant impact on the speed and quality of our relief operations,” says Will Rogers, IFRC coordinator for beneficiary communication and one of the original TERA collaborators. “It has given community members a larger stake in rebuilding.” Of the 74 per cent of people in Haiti who reported receiving Red Cross messages in 2011, 96 per cent said that they found the information useful and 83 per cent said they took action as a result. These results reveal how effective disaster response requires both responders and beneficiaries to take action based on information we receive from each other.

Mobile industry association GSMA is further raising the profile of digital humanitarianism. Its annual Global Mobile Awards features a category for ‘Use of Mobile in Emergency or Humanitarian Situations,’ in which TERA was short-listed for 2012. “It has been heartening to receive this recognition, not only for the technology, but for the potential it has to equip vulnerable populations with information as aid,” says Ian Beckett, vice president of information technology at Trilogy International Partners.

Expanding to Asia, Africa and the Americas

We are now working to replicate the TERA model through partnerships in disaster-prone regions worldwide. “We are currently working with major operators in Asia, Africa and the Americas,” says Rogers. “We will initially prioritize those areas of the world with especially high levels of disaster risk, such as Pakistan’s flood-prone provinces.”

Combined with traditional channels such as radio, newsletters and personal contact, SMS messaging is a vital component of the Red Cross Red Crescent approach to beneficiary communication.

This infographic illustrates this model: