Digital aid for refugees

For many years, IT and telecoms have had a very important role to play in most humanitarian responses. The main focus has been to provide reliable communications and connectivity to aid workers who are responding to a crisis. Organisations such as the Emergency Telecoms Cluster (ETC) exist to provide the telecoms and connectivity which emergency responders rely on. In a crisis, it has been recognised that not only aid workers need access to the internet, the wider affected population also needs to access the internet as well. Organisations are starting to provide services to affected populations already. This year, the ETC have fully embraced the concept into its ETC2020 strategy and have established a new working group consisting of Save the Children, Nethope and the CDAC Network. This new workgroup is exploring how we can deliver connectivity to the affected populations.

As the ETC working group is holding meetings to discuss what the “services to affected communities” will look like, Nethope (an IT membership body run by over 25 NGOs) is already on the ground making a difference. In this article, we will explore what is being done to provide connectivity and some of the challenges we face

The Syrian crisis has led to many people being displaced in Europe. More than 11 million people have been displaced which makes this situation the largest mass movement of population since world war 2. More than 4 million people have fled the country completely. Each day, refugees by the hundreds to thousands are on the move. Until a few years ago, Syrians lived in cities which had reliable infrastructure and plenty of internet connectivity. This mobilised population of refugees are educated, and some have money. It has been reported that the three questions asked when a refugee lands are:  1) Where am I? (They are wanting confirmation that they have reached the safety of the EU), 2) How can they get access to the internet and 3) where can they buy food.

GSM mastWithin the wider humanitarian community, the concept of providing connectivity to refugees is being regarded almost with the same importance as food, water and shelter. Reliable internet access is an enabler as organisations are starting to use cash voucher systems over mobile networks to deliver aid. The monitoring and evaluation specialist use mobile technologies to get feedback from affected populations about the aid they received. GSM masts are being set up in and around some of the world’s largest refugee camps where people will be living for long periods of time. At the recent humanitarian summit in Geneva, UNHCR stated that across all camos, the average length of stay is 17 years. With such vast numbers of people staying in these camps for long periods, its easy to understand why the major network operators are keen to get coverage to the camp. It has been said that the Safricom GSM mast in the Dadaab camp has the second highest amount of financial transactions each day via its MPESA system.

Connectivity is not where it ends, it’s what we do with that connectivity which is really important. Information is power and if we can get the correct sort of information to the people who needs it, then there is an opportunity to disrupt established practices for the betterment of all. One example of this disruption is where farmers in remote villages have been linked to market prices in the cities far away. This information has enabled the farmers to negotiate better prices from the middlemen who moves the produce to market. This has had a very positive impact on some remote communities.

 So whilst there are plenty of examples of technology making a difference in places where things are more settled, there is also a need to provide connectivity to people in the time of crisis. This needs to be done from the get-go. For example following an earthquake in an urban setting, alongside medical and rescue people, the telecoms engineer is also an emergency responder. Bringing mobile networks back online is essential as it means that people who are entrapped will be able to call for help using a mobile phone. There is some solid data from Haiti to support this.

Returning to the Syrian Crisis, connectivity is needed for a mobile population. Organisations like the Nethope are responding and have plans to establish a line of internet hotspots along the migration routes in Europe. The main networks have gaps, or where there is coverage, the network is not robust enough to deal with the vast number of users trying to connect. Nethope and its members are working towards a solution which will make a difference.


The programme Nethope is running is very thoughtful as they are not just creating hotspots, they have thought through how the connectivity will be used.

Cyber security is the top priority. Alongside the physical war, a cyber war is also being waged. The population is running away from danger and may still have families inside of Syria. On this basis, networks need to be secure so that no information can leak out which could place relatives who remain in Syria in danger. There has already been reports of murders following information gained through a Skype spoofing act. Nethope are co-opting some of the best brains from Cisco to make its network secure.

  • Mobile smartphones need power, so Nethope will set up charging stations at every site where a hotspot is set up.
  • Information is needed so that refugees can find out where they can access services such as health care, shelter and so on.
  • Children are not being educated, so there is a plan to develop and roll out an education app which can be accessed at all points along the migration route.


All of this costs money and Nethope has launched an appeal. More information about this project can be found online at

It is clear that telecoms and IT have a major role to play now in humanitarian response. It is now important that during any emergency response that senior telecoms/IT people are brought into the response senior leadership teams as IT and communications is starting to touch everything we do. The techies have a lot to offer any emergency response and should not be regarded as “the geek who just fixes computers”.



UN rolls out digital radio – Do NGOs need to throw away existing radios?

Short range VHF radio communications is changing for the better. For many years many UN agencies and NGOs have used analogue radio systems. Many leading manufactures like Motorola are ditching the analogue almost completely in favour of digital technologies. Towards the end of 2014,  Motorola stopped producing its popular GP and GM series radios.

Recently the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster  (ETC) in South Sudan sent out an email to agencies and NGOs to inform everyone what the new DP and DM MotoTRBO radios would become the new standard. They also provided a list of local resellers where NGOs could buy the new radios. Some NGOs started to worry that all radios would need to be replaced. In this article, I want to set minds at rest and explain why NGOs do not need to ditch the analogue radios quite yet.ETC

Before I get into the details about the new radio technology, here is a little background information about the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

The ETC was formed as part of the wider cluster system by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The original mandate was to provide telecommunications, connectivity and basic IT support when the cluster system is activated during an emergency response. This original mandate will be expanded to other areas under the new ETC2020 strategy.

Currently the ETC is providing services inclusive of VHF radio networks in South Sudan, Iraq, West Africa, Central African Republic, Yemen, Syria and Nepal. To date, the ETC have provided relay stations with supports analogue radios such as the GM360 and GP380. The ETC will begin to roll out digital networks over the next few years which will work alongside existing analogue networks. The ETC will continue to keep these analogue networks running until 2020. Please visit
for more information.

Digital VHF  – How this affects NGOs
In 2014, many UN agencies agreed to use the MotoTRBO DMR technology as the standard system. Many NGOs including Save the Children have already adopted the same standard.  This means that from now on, network providers such as WFP,ETC and UNDSS will be setting up digital networks for NGOs to use.

The adoption of the new digital standard does not mean we have to throw away all of the radios we currently use. The new MotoTRBO DM and DP models also work in analogue mode which means that the new radios will be compatible with the older GM and GP radios which are currently in use. VHF repeater stations are also digital but can also be set up so that analogue radios can be supported.

In locations where the ETC is providing VHF Relay coverage, analogue will continue to be supported alongside any new digital services until 2020. As the new radios can be set up to work with both technologies,  the new radios will be able to communicate with older models on the analogue channels. Organisations will need to develop a strategy to switch to digital completely after 2020 or set up their own repeaters.

In places where the ETC or other UN agencies do not provide a network, organisations will have complete control and should develop a switchover strategy which suits each organisation. The best approach is for organisations to work up a strategy for each country rather than to impose a global deadline. In places where NGOs plan to set up completely new networks, digital should be used from the get-go. For places where already networks are well established, over time new digital radios will be added as older analogue radios are taken out of service due to age, wear and tear. In some countries, organisations are using DR3000 repeaters in analogue mode. These repeaters are digital ready and it’s a fairly simple task to move from analogue to digital mode.  It is clear that different countries will move to digital at a different pace to others, but with the correct planning, its possible to  design hybrid networks which will utilise analogue and digital channels thus making the transition easier.

What benefits will digital deliver?
With the analogue networks, the quality of the audio will diminish the further away the  mobile station is from the base. With a digital network, the call quality remains the same out to the edge. As the signal weakens, the audio becomes poor very quickly.


Digital networks allows for many more functions. Repeaters can be joined up via the internet so that calls can be made between cities. The practical use of radios will also change on a digital system. It’s possible to make private calls between radios without disturbing all other radios on the network. Of course the useful ability to call all stations with a broadcast is still available.

Digital radio is more efficient. For each frequency an organisation is licensed to use, two voice channels can be used (Only one channel per frequency is analogue). This is achieved by using Time Division Multiple Access (or TDMA), a method which is also used in mobiles phones and satellite technologies.  Voice calls are split up into separate time slots on the frequency, which does result in a very slight voice delay.


In digital modes, as the radio is only transmitting for ½
the time of analogue, battery life is extended by up to 40 %.

There are many other benefits to the digital system soch as
remote management tools, the ability to give each radio an ID, emergency calls,
and the ability to send text messages between radios

Digital VHF radio is definitely the future. The ETC has
taken a sensible approach by continuing to provide analogue support right out to
2020. NGOs should note the changes and start to develop plans to move to digital
over the next 5 years.

How what3words will change the way we use addresses globally

Before starting out in the ICT profession in 1999, I spent many years at sea on various ships, yachts and a submarine. The art of navigation was a major part of my work as I plotted a safe course from port to port. Many years later, in the NGO sector, I am still very much involved in navigation, but from a technology viewpoint. In past articles, I have covered various navigational topics which have explored GPS solutions. In this article I want to share with you a great concept which resolves a long standing issue of providing an easy to remember or to communicate addressing system. The solution is so simple and brilliant, when I learned about it this week, it just blew my socks off !!!!!!

Postcode Chaos
In the UK, we have a postcode system which can be used to locate places. The format use consists of 6 characters for much of the UK or if you live in London, its 7. The postal code for Save the Children Office is WC2H 7HH. If were to put this code into Google Maps, you would get a very accurate location of centre.

The UK post code system in the UK is very good for businesses as the code not only defines the actual building location, but also which floor the business is on. However for domestic residents, it’s a different story. Every time I send my postcode to a taxi firm, the driver uses my postcode to find my house using a satnav. This causes a problem as the UK postcode system sends the driver to the other end of the street. The driver sometimes gets lost and needs to call me to find my location 

Where postal or Zip codes do not exists
As imperfect the UK postal code system might be, it’s better than having no postcode at all. In Monrovia, Liberia, there are street names, but no postal codes or numbers. The address of the office which was used by one NGO was “Between 15th Street and 16th Street, Russell Avenue, Sinkor, Monrovia.

As there are a number of premises between  15th & 16th streets, this is an excuse for DHL to loose parcels!

How do we deal with remote places where there are no street names?  How can we accurately locate individual families in a refugee camp?  Latitude and Longitude is a long established method to locate things very accurately. In colonial times, Longitude was problematic as many nations centred “Zero Degrees” Longitude on their capital cities. This meant that if longitude provided in in the French format were to be plotted on a British map, the difference in formats would result in an error which would be more than 100KM.

These days we use a global format for Latitude and Longitude, but there are still issues. Latitude and longitude can be presented in a number of formats. With the emergence of internet technologies Latitude and Longitude is represented in a digital format. Traditionally position was expressed as Latitude followed by Longitude, but some technologies such as Google maps will express position in the opposite order e.g. -1.682017, 29.231105.

Whilst Lat/Long can be highly accurate, there is a great potential for error. Errors can also result when people try to communicate location in this format. Get one digit wrong in this format, and people will simply show up at the wrong place.

World class addressing system
Let’s be clear, the use of latitude and longitude is going to continue to be the primary means which technology will use for navigation, but it’s not user-friendly, What we need is a new global system where people can express to others any location on the planet in a very simple and easy to use way. In London, UK, a new start-up organization has found the answer. It’s called what3words. They have a very simple concept that every location on the planet can be expressed with just three words. It’s pure genius and as an old navigator, this idea simply floats my boat. In my line of work I see a lot of innovation, but this ideal is dynamite. The grid resolution of this addressing system is so fine that each unique address covers a box of 3 meters square. By using this system, not only does an office have an address, it is possible direct people to the correct entrance !

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