Smartphones could help save lives

Smartphone technology could save lives after disasters

Smartphone technology could help save lives after a disaster or humanitarian crisis, and ease financial and emotional burden on aid organisations.

University of Manchester researchers have developed software that could help to quickly and accurately locate missing people, identify those suffering from malnutrition, and point people towards safe zones.

One of the systems developed by Dr Gavin Brown and his team Peter Sutton and Lloyd Henning in the Machine Learning and Optimisation group at the university is the REUNITE mobile and web platform.

In the aftermath of a major disaster, aid workers typically interviewed people who had become separated from their families. The records were normally stored in paper form, which could be lost, damaged or illegible. Although there were systems set up to solve the issue – such as the public search facilities set up by charities such as the Red Cross – there was no universal system to provide this vital task, the university said.

REUNITE recorded the initial interview using a smartphone, and uploaded these onto a central server. The records could then be accessed by trusted aid workers via computer away from the scene, who gathered as much information as they could by liaising with other users in a similar manner to a social network, before passing details onto aid workers on the ground.

The interviews would be quickly transcribed into a web-searchable format which could be downloaded by relief workers on the ground, which can then relay the massage to survivors.
The unlimited amount of web users, called a ‘crowd’, would be a trusted network of individuals who access the information via an encrypted uplink – which would address any issues of confidentiality. 

As part of the same research, Dr Brown has also created software called ‘Where’s Safe’, which quickly identifies safe areas for people to go to in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Designed to replace the emergency radio broadcast system, which does not reach a large amount of people, the software allows people to find their nearest safe point simply by sending an SMS message.

Dr Brown’s third software application is HeightCatcher – a tool which can quickly calculate infants who are suffering from malnutrition and work out what quantity of fluids they need. Levels of malnutrition are measured by Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by a person’s age, height and weight. The information is entered on a smartphone, which instantly calculates what food or fluids the child needs.

Dr Brown hopes the inventions could be of huge significance to victims of disaster as well as aid workers.

“Our results have demonstrated that mobile intelligent systems can be deployed in low-power, high-risk environments, to the benefit of all involved. 

“We believe the refugee aid community will be a strong beneficiary of such technology over the next few years," Dr Brown said.

Further reading:

Read more about REUNITE

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