Internet and mobile technology have changed the way we live. It’s where we check for news, directions and weather, and it’s how we stay in touch with loved ones. With an estimated 6 billion mobile phone users worldwide, mobile communications is fast proving to be the most effective and efficient means of reaching and informing the public when disaster strikes.

Just after the Boston bombings, people turned to their smartphones to let family and friends know they were okay, using apps like Life360. Company CEO Chris Hulls says the response was remarkable. “It was thousands and thousands of check-ins right after it happened,” he says. “It was pretty interesting to see how people, the first thing they did after it happened and they were fine was pull out the app and check in.”

The Life360 cellphone app, which has 34 million users, lets you see family members’ locations and send text messages and emails to them. Hulls says the emergency app marketplace has gotten crowded, as events like Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook school shooting showed people the need for emergency apps. “It makes so much sense,” says Hulls. “The fact that we have an always on, Internet and location enabled device in our pockets, it’s kind of just clicked for everybody.”

The U.S. market for emergency apps is worth an estimated $1 billion, as schools, businesses and other institutions look to buy them. Case in point: Apple has filed a patent for an emergency app for the iPhone.

The Federal Communications Commission requires institutions of higher education to have mass communications systems in place.

Nonprofits such as The American Red Cross recently launched a series of apps, including ones notifying people of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires.  In addition, there are apps to help you find a shelter, provide first aid, and even sign up to volunteer. They are available for free in the Apple and Google Play stores.

One looming challenge is that mobile technology and the Internet could crash like it did during Hurricane Sandy. To address that issue and keep people safe, the nation’s wireless carriers partnered with the FCC and FEMA launched Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) which are emergency messages including weather events and local emergencies requiring evacuation or immediate action. They are similar in style to texts, but use different technology that do not require a mobile carrier’s system to be operative in order to be received. Some even use voice messages through mobile devices in the event a phone is buried in a briefcase or pocket book—or under a pile of rubble.

During a weather emergency, messages are sent by an authorized government agency to those within a targeted area, unlike text messages, which are not “location aware.” For example, if a person with a WEA-capable device from Washington, D.C.  were in southern California when an earthquake occurred in that area, they would receive an “Imminent Threat Alert” on their device.

Technology Shifting Disaster Management and Philanthropy

Looking beyond emergency management and response, technology also makes it much easier for people to get information, volunteer and make charitable contributions in the wake of a disaster. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy gets huge spikes in website traffic as soon as a disaster hits the social networking or media spheres.

“We know that people go to their online networks for information—to see if loved ones are safe, to identify needs and to take action,” says Regine A. Webster, Vice President at CDP, who oversees the web content and social media for the organization. “Technology has changed the disaster landscape, making information available to people immediately through social networks, and to, contribute.”

Webster advises, however, that immediate giving is only part of the philanthropic giving puzzle and that most needs emerge within the weeks and months following a disaster. “I think the real power in the technology is helping people to get early warnings, to prepare, to get help and to reach loved ones.”

Technology and Slow Onset Disasters

Mobile broadband is growing dramatically in emerging nations. According to the World Economic Forum, it will grow from 61 percent of broadband connections in 2011 to 84 percent in 2016.

It is notable that there were fewer than 20 million fixed-line phones across Africa in 2000, but by 2012, there were nearly 650 million mobile phone subscriptions. Mobile devices are crucial in providing assistance to those in need by allowing extended families to assist from afar. Members of Zimbabwe’s British Diaspora, for instance, can visit the website Mukuru.com to order goods such as petrol for their loved ones back home. Recipients in Africa are texted a code to their mobile devices, which they show the petrol station to receive their goods.

In Eastern Africa, livestock herders use mobile phones to send early drought warnings, in an attempt to skirt disastrous agricultural calamities such as the drought that struck the Horn of Africa in 2011. Field data reaches government officials, and pinpoints exact locations of the texts using GPS technology, allowing for an accurate response. Africa’s own citizens also use mobile technology to seek help when needed. A few years ago, a man in a refugee camp in Dadaab walked to his local internet café, looked up the number of two U.N. officials and texted them this urgent message:  “… Dear Sir, there is an alarming issues here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”

What began as a solution for one NGO evolved into a solution for the disaster management space. One backpack-sized device—the Network Relief Kit (NRK)—has altered the way NGOs communicate and collaborate during emergencies. Created with the work of Save the Children in focus, and developed in collaboration with Cisco and NetHope, the NRK today provides the field workers of dozens of NGOs with on-the-go broadband connectivity in remote regions so that when a catastrophic disaster strikes, responding NGOs can restore internet access for responding organizations in a matter of days. This type of connectivity is critical for mobilizing resources, especially on an international scale. The easier it is for on-the-ground NGOs to communicate during disasters, the easier it is to reach those in need.

The next game-changing Internet technology for NGOs is cloud-computing, proffers Frank Schott, NetHope Interim President and Executive Director. NetHope, which focuses on information and communications technologies (ICTs) in international development, includes 39 of the world’s largest NGOs which are all are making the move to cloud based solutions.

Schott explains that cloud solutions allow information to be managed centrally in a secure datacenter and opposed to an NGO’s offices in locations around the world, many of them remote where it is impossible to have a full-time IT person. The cost to operate and maintain mission critical IT capabilities comes down dramatically with solutions like Office 365. And for international NGOs, that’s money saved to reinvest in programs that advance their core missions. In a disaster situation, the cloud can be a literal lifesaver.

“Because many organizations lack the basic connectivity that users would need to access their applications and data, it seemed improbable that it would catch on quickly. However, I’ve been struck by how quickly various innovations are coming together simultaneously making cloud solutions well within reach – and highly desirable – for most organizations working in the developing world today,” says Schott.

Microsoft recently announced that it would make its Office 365 available for free to nonprofits working in developing countries.

How Donors Can Help

  • Scale up new technology: Fund technologies that can help with slow-onset disasters such as software to improve feeding programs, or devices to track water quality. There are many technologies under development that require investment to make them scalable.
  • Host a design competition: Foundations and government agencies around the world have sponsored competitions that have resulted in the development of new technologies, with funds supporting further development of the winning concepts.
  • Try out a handful of disaster apps: Using technology apps can keep donors connected during a disaster, and will give them firsthand experience with understanding how your investment in technology can enhance disaster response. Connect with your grantees through the apps so that you can  should a disaster strike.
  • Support your grantees’ continuity plans: It’s likely that you have a business continuity plan in place; also ensure that your grantees are looking at technology such as mobile apps or cloud support to protect their data in an emergency.
  • Consider Investing in Technology Applications: Online and mobile technologies get a lot of the buzz, but there are also a myriad of other technology applications in development worth consideration. Students, researchers and professional engineers alike are creating prototypes that are in market, or being brought to market.

Learn More

Snapshot: Technology Applications

  • OpenRelief UAV: This miniature drone built from off-the-shelf components such as fiberglass, has a 5.5-foot wingspan and weighs less than 7 pounds. It uses advanced image processing systems to identify roads, smoke, and people, and record what it sees. The information is sent to emergency response agencies to inform their decision-making.
  • Concrete Canvas: Just add air and water and within 48 hours, you can have shelter made of cement–hybrid fabric that’s waterproof and fireproof. These permanent structures can be easily constructed in less than an hour. The canvas comes attached to a polyethylene frame, which can be inflated into a shelter using an electric fan. After securing the shelter with ground anchors, douse it with water and let it set for approximately 48 hours, at which point it’s ready to use.