Aid Tech Aidworks Emily Troutman

Drones, Google Glass and the Future of Humanitarianism: Q+A with Disaster Tech Lab

Evert Bopp is the co-founder and CEO of Disaster Tech Lab. Over the years, the organization has responded to numerous humanitarian disasters, including most recently, Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. For this interview, Evert and I corresponded via e-mail.

Your group, Disaster Tech Lab, responded to the Philippine typhoons last year. When you go into a situation like that, what kind of services are you providing right away? Wi-Fi?

We start out by providing basic internet access via Wi-Fi. The service is routed via satellite terminals. Once this initial presence is established, we work to provide additional services such as Skype, laptops/tablets for people to use and phone service via VoIP. For those who want to know more about this, they can go on over to websites such as to see if this may be beneficial for them as it was for us.

Is your main goal to give services to aid groups or to the community?

We try to support both the local communities as well as other responding organizations but over the years our focus has slowly moved to assisting the local communities foremost.

Disaster Lab AidworksWhat are some of the challenges you face in the field?

The logistics of getting personnel and equipment to the affected areas is a huge challenge. Especially for a small organization like ours. Then there are challenges like accommodation for our personnel, food, power for our equipment, security, medical care, you name it.

Then we face the challenge of finding the right people or community to support. We can’t help everyone and have to make a judgement call on who to needs our assistance most or who will most benefit from it.

Dealing with local authorities and gaining their trust is also a big issue. Our approach is that we follow the lead of the people we assist, we don’t come into an area and tell them how to do things. We sit down with them, they tell us what they need and we try to provide that.

Did the Philippine typhoon response spark any new innovations in the field of disaster tech?

While there weren’t any completely new innovations, the Haiyan response saw a huge increase in the use of digital mapping and data gathering by organizations such as the Digital Humanitarian Network. Digital mapping allows improved planning and situational awareness.

The potential of real-time applications and event driven architecture could lead to a significant change in how natural disasters are dealt with. Increased situational awareness, operational responsiveness, better decision making, are only a few of the benefits that such technology can offer to the disaster tech area. What Are Real-Time Applications? – VANTIQ and other such organizations are working to bring this to the forefront, so you could understand more about it from their websites.

For ourselves, this was the first deployment during which we used 3G/4G as backhaul (network routing for internet). Before we always used Vsat (satellite) services but we found that there was an acceptable level of 3G/4G cover even in very remote villages. Considering the cost effectiveness of 3G/4G over Vsat, it was great to use and test this service.

Disaster Lab AidworksYou wrote on your blog about an experimental drone that researchers say could provide floating Wi-Fi. What’s your take? Is there any hope for a tool like this?

That concept, while sounding cool, will not work for a variety of reasons. But drones/UAV’s and Wi-Fi have many different applications, one of which we are developing in partnership with a U.S. avionics company.

The idea is to make a drone that could be flown over a disaster zone to detect and geolocate signals emitted by mobile phones (Wi-Fi or cell signals). These locations could indicate people trapped in rubble or in flooded houses. Perhaps in the future, every household could easily purchase their own drone from somewhere like DJI Canada, and use it to send their own footage to emergency services, to aid in their own rescue.

What innovations are you hoping to see in 2015 from technologists interested in disaster response?

Besides some of the projects we are working on ourselves, I would hope to see more use of augmented reality in disaster response. While Google Glass was a mainstream flop, it would be a great tool to use for projecting relevant data to first responders after an earthquake or flood.

Another technology which I expect to see more use of is cellular. When we founded the organization in 2010, we purposely developed our programs around Wi-Fi as this was the most commonly used protocol.

With the huge growth of cellular, especially in developing countries, we are planning to provide this as a communications service in disaster zones in the near future. This will be a massive step for us when it comes to communicating with developing countries, and you can see how different products can make a difference in your life too. All you have to do is learn more from Particle to see how you can broaden your horizons when it comes to different types of cellular networks. Before we start our new challenge though, there are regulatory issues to overcome, as it’s a licensed protocol, but we are sure that national regulators will make provisions for use as part of disaster response efforts.

This interview is part of a new feature on Aid.Works, “Aid Tech,” highlighting humanitarian and charitable technology. Submit your story suggestions here.