“Mobile Technology in Emergencies: Principles and Practice” featured on Developing Telecoms: Connected Citizens, Managing Crisis, August 2015 issue. Written by Christopher Fabian. To download the complete issue, click here.

Mobile technology provides a set of tools for preparing for, responding to, and building back after emergencies that can help save lives. In order for these tools to be truly effective, they should follow a set of pragmatic principles, such as design with the end-user, build with local tools and people, build for sustainability and use open data, open standards and open source.

When UNICEF’s Innovation Unit was working in Liberia during the height of the Ebola crisis in 2014, we saw firsthand how useful it was to follow a practical and principled approach to building systems that enabled real-time data collection, access to information, and youth engagement using mobile technology. We also saw many examples of projects with good intent, and good publicity, that didn’t gain the traction they might have hoped for.

A consistent thread that ran through projects, and seems to be a decisive factor in whether or not they succeed, was the ability of project teams (whether from international organizations, non-profits, or global corporate/private sector) to work well with mobile network operators (MNOs).

During the Ebola response, Erica Kochi – who co-leads UNICEF’s Innovation Unit with me – and I wrote a series of articles and blog posts (including this one in TechCrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2014/10/29/tech-ebola/) discussing the role of technology firms (in general) in the response. In this article, I would like to focus on three specific lessons that we learned about working with mobile network operators – and hope to open up a larger discussion about taking these lessons to a global stage.

Here are the three practical applications of UNICEF’s Innovation Principles (www.unicefstories.org/principles) that we found vital to our work in Liberia (and in other collaborations with the mobile industry) before, during and after the emergency response:

1)  Work with existing regulatory structures

2)  Build sustainable systems

3)  Build entirely open-source

What is UNICEF’s Innovation Unit?

UNICEF is an international organization (part of the United Nations) that works for the rights and safety of children and women – particularly those who are most marginalized in their societies, and most at risk in the world. UNICEF is almost 70 years old, with 12,000 staff members, and a presence in more than 190 countries.

In addition to its work with governments to help build more responsive systems for health, education, protection, and other areas key to a child’s development and wellbeing, UNICEF also works in emergencies. In 2014, the organization was active in 294 humanitarian situations of various size and scale in 98 countries.(http://www.unicef.org/emergencies/files/HAS_Study_2014_final.pdf)

Within the structure and activities of UNICEF, the organization’s Innovation Unit acts as an incubator and accelerator of new technologies and solutions. The team focuses on startup investments through its Innovation Fund, on mid-stage support and partnerships with technology leaders through its San Francisco node, and on scaling up approaches that show results through its Global Innovation Center.

UNICEF’s Innovation Unit has used mobile technology (particularly systems built off  SMS and working with the lowest-end consumer handsets) to create a birth reporting system called RapidSMS in Nigeria that has reported on more than 18 million births (http://rapidsmsnigeria.org/br); a youth engagement and advocacy platform called U-Report with more than 1 million active users in 15 countries (http://www.ureport.in); and platforms like RapidPro which are helping governments develop applications to understand the situation of teachers (EduTrac), health workers (mTrac), or other vital links to communities through rapid, actionable data (https://community.rapidpro.io/).

The Innovation Unit is made up of designers, engineers, technologists, and experts in identifying and scaling portfolios of solutions that create options for the organization – mobile technologies fall under multiple portfolios depending on whether they are infrastructure-, consumer-, or government-focused.

What innovations did UNICEF use in Liberia during the Ebola Crisis?

In October 2014, the Ebola outbreak in Liberia proved that there was a vital need for UNICEF and other players to have better information about the epidemic, as well as for citizens to have actionable and real information about how to keep safe. In a country of more than four million people, with fewer than 700 kilometers of paved road, information is a lifesaving – and difficult to move – commodity.

Erica Kochi once said: “no amount of technology alone fixes a broken national healthcare system” – and that is as true in emergencies as it is in ongoing, generally broken environments. However, a small amount of technology can act as a catalyst to help humans make changes that they might not be able to otherwise.

In Liberia, working with the Ministry of Health and other local and international partners, UNICEF was able to build two systems to aid and accelerate the response efforts: mHero and U-Report.

mHero, developed in collaboration with IntraHealth and USAID, with partial funding provided by Google, is a system which links into the government’s existing databases of health workers and allows the Ministry to ask questions,identify who is still alive and working, and ensure that necessary supplies and training are provided. (http://www. unicefstories.org/2015/06/26/mhero-connecting-andempowering-health-workers-through-mobile-phones-inliberia/)

U-Report Liberia (https://liberia.ureport.in) is a free, opensource text-message-based social network developed on UNICEF’s global, open-source RapidPro technology that allows young people to send and receive information – and creates a web-based aggregation of the results of conversations. (http://unicefstories.org/2015/03/10/u-report-liberia-launches-in-westpoint-keep-chillin-at-8737/)

These systems allowed UNICEF and partners to better target their work. Having the ability to understand what people need in minutes, rather than in months, allows for more effective messaging that is responsive to rumor and questions that may be circulating in the public discourse (“bathing in salt water does not cure Ebola”). It also allows members of an emergency response to ask directed questions of populations (“In your district, are schools re-opening?” http://unicefstories.org/2015/05/14/making-schools-safer-in-sierra-leone-during-the-ebola-outbreak/).

None of this work would have been possible without collaborations with mobile network operators.

How can MNOs be partners in the emergency response?

1) Work with existing regulatory structures Emergencies are, by nature, chaotic. Hundreds of players, many without a great deal of prior experience inside a given country or context, are trying to get information, set up networks of personnel, and build supply chains that can reach across or even between countries.

Emergency responders (particularly the international relief crowd) carry their own historical baggage of previous disaster work, complementarities (or complexities), and an army of acronyms and byzantine protocols for contracting, collaborating, and communicating.

One of the most confusing things that a mobile network operator goes through in an emergency – in addition to fear for their staff  and their customers – is being approached by multiple different parties, all using different language, asking for variations of the same thing.

“We need free SMSes.”

“We want access to your CDR data.”

“We want to put this hardware up on your towers.”

These are well-intentioned requests – but not always well communicated. And since MNOs may not know the intricacies of an emergency response, it is difficult for a MNO to prioritize various meetings about possibilities, much less the technical work involved in taking action.

In addition to the lack of clarity of requests (and requestors), an emergency is a constantly shifting tapestry of experts being deployed, and then returning to their normal duty stations after a week, a month, or a year has passed. Each new face means a new relationship needs to be built, handover notes need to be read, and communications often fall through the cracks.

It is vital to work through existing regulatory and contractual structures in order to allow MNOs to have clear direction from the government on which requests will have the most impact, as well as to create continuity and structure that can withstand personnel movements and an evolving situation.

Our work in Liberia was vastly facilitated by having a clear line to the Liberian Telecommunications Authority (LTA), as well as to the Ministry of Health (to provide the LTA with technical requests.) The LTA was able to be the broker of conversations between UNICEF and the MNOs – including being present in meetings – which both gave an additional layer of authority to the requests for collaboration and services and also provided a set of contact points in the government who could maintain an overview of the process from beginning to end.

There was a high level of interest from MNOs in collaborating with UNICEF – Ebola is a terrifying and clear public health risk – but having the technical credibility of the Telecommunications Authority made work happen more quickly and more effectively.

There is a common complaint that having to work through governments and regulatory authorities takes time, and is not as easy for a smaller, less connected player than UNICEF.

These facts do not worry me too much. It is often slower to work with others than to act alone – but in a public emergency, acting alone can often draw resources away from much needed systemic collaborations.

It is mostly easier to work with a big entity if one is already in another big entity, but it is also mostly the big players who are able to make national-level improvements. To mitigate both of these two realities, it is possible for a smaller, less established organization to build up trust and networks before an emergency. Having the existing connections in place can allow smaller local partners to move quickly and with the MNOs and government.

 2) Build sustainable systems

Emergencies are a chance to move new ideas forward. We saw this in Liberia, with the introduction of U-Report and mHero. We also saw it in discussions with network operators in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes. This willingness to experiment is due to a combination of factors – but it also should be tempered by a strong adherence to principles.

In Liberia (and elsewhere in West Africa), many of the network engineers had left the country at the outset of the Ebola epidemic. This often left MNOs with a limited ability to create technical enhancements. It sometimes even limited their ability to do basic traffic shaping and network diagnostics.

The psychological and financial toll of an emergency makes it very difficult for responders to ask for specific technical ‘builds’ or engineering time from MNOs. It also means that there is a greater than normal temptation to offshore development of technologies. In general, taking data and technology outside of the emergency context may seem expedient, but is not the best approach to take.

Taking technology work out of the country, particularly in a time when an economy is at its most fragile, sets a bad precedent for longer term work, but also prevents the localized, co-created solutions that we ” nd so key in creating services that users actually like. U-Report in Liberia was built with its users, over a course of months, and tested ” rst in Monrovia, and then further outside of the city. It works particularly because it was built locally – and apps and services that were built in San Francisco, at the same time, consistently have not received the same level of uptake (http://unicefstories.org/2014/10/29/wat-bother-u-d-most-abt-ebola-the-design-of-u-report-liberia/).

Taking data (particularly data containing individual user information) out of the country is also a risk – both because it may violate data privacy or sovereignty laws, and also because it may be useful as a one-time exercise, but it is highly unlikely that MNOs will provide a longer-term delivery of user data. Without creating a path for continuity and sustainability, systems set up in an emergency waste a great deal of effort. Without setting up a platform that can be used after the emergency – to prevent further outbreaks, to strengthen national systems, and to create real-time information flows – all the time and knowledge put into building a system is lost.

An emergency is a time to act quickly, but it can also be a time to develop a new cadre of local problem-solvers. In Liberia (and in Nepal) we were able to work with various open-source communities and identify champions of innovation that could work with UNICEF (and mobile network operators) during and after the emergency.

 3) Build entirely open-source

It is very tempting to take an off-the-shelf, proprietary solution and deploy it immediately in an emergency. It is also incredibly dangerous.

One of UNICEF’s fundamental principles in developing new mobile technology has been to ensure that it is entirely in the public domain. This approach, while controversial at first, has proven effective in both our ongoing work, as well as our innovations in emergencies.

Being open-source ensures that MNOs and governments know what they are getting in terms of technology. They can examine the entire technical “stack” of software (or hardware). They can have it tested by their own security experts and they can adapt or add to it as needed.

It also means that UNICEF is creating solutions that aren’t linked to a specific MNO or controlled by a specific private sector company. The technology behind U-Report or mHero for instance can be used across operators, and across countries.

At a “group” level, MNOs often have proprietary management and control software for their networks, billing, and other quality-of-service functions. Keeping our systems open, and documenting them (and their APIs) thoroughly allows for easier integration and technical enhancements.

Finally, being open-source gives the MNOs and government equal “ownership” of the source-code. They can use it for other purposes after the emergency response. They can work with local technologists to extend it. They can improve on it. Proprietary technologies do not give this level of ownership or adaptability.


Working with mobile network operators is a key emerging strategy for humanitarian work. There are a great number of opportunities that true collaboration can provide.

While structuring these collaborations in a way that respects the existing working mechanisms of both MNOs and emergency actors can seem daunting, there are methods and protocols that are emerging which can add velocity and impact to technological innovations.

UNICEF has seen that adherence to a clear set of principles (www.unicefstories.org/principles) helps it and partners work together more smoothly. These principles include: prioritizing local government as a key partner in the emergency response, ensuring that systems and software is developed and maintained by local talent, and creating open-source public goods that can be quickly adapted as the emergency develops and extended into reconstruction and rebuilding efforts after it has subsided.

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