Connecting To The Internet, And The World, Post-Disaster

Nov 17, 2013
Originally published on November 17, 2013 11:24 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit


In the Philippines, the relief effort after Typhoon Haiyan is now in its second week. And as information trickles out, we have a clear picture of the scale of the devastation. But let's go back to when the storm made landfall. In an instant, not only were houses washed away and roads destroyed, phones, computers, just about every type of modern communication was lost. Without power, without the digital towers that stitch the world together, what happens then?


RAMONE ANGUILLON: Ham radio traffic were the first form of communication to come online between Tacloban and the outside world right after the storm.

MARTIN: That's Ramone Anguillon(ph), call sign Delta Uniform One Uncle Gulf Zulu. He's an amateur radio enthusiast, and from his post, just south of Manila, he was one of the first responders in communicating with the disaster area. Ham radio buffs use old tech but its part of a long tradition of helping out in emergencies.

ANGUILLON: One of the first guys to use our link was the Secretary Defense because at that time the Manila government had no information of the whereabouts of the Secretary Defense and the Secretary of the Interior who were sent to Tacloban before the storm. Even the president could not contact his cabinet on the ground in Tacloban. So one of the first message for us to relay was the message of the Secretary Defense.

MARTIN: But to provide disaster relief you need more than radios. Cell phones and Internet access aren't luxuries; they're now vital parts of coordinating a global response to a local crisis. And restoring connectivity quickly under extreme conditions is the new frontier of humanitarian aid.

PAUL MARGIE: I am Paul Margie. I'm the U.S. representative of Telecom Sans Frontiere. We're an emergency response organization and what we do is three main jobs. One: We go to emergencies and we set up telecommunications centers for first responders. So when search and rescue teams or local governmental responders are in the middle of helping people after an earthquake or a disaster like in the Philippines or in a conflict, they have the connectivity they need to do their job.

We also go to survivors camps or refugee camps and set up calling operations. So people that are separated from their families get a free call to let their families know that they're alive. And in between emergencies, we train other people on how to do this.

MARTIN: So, in the Philippines, I understand your organization went in ahead of the typhoon. What happens to that point? How can you anticipate what the needs will be?

MARGIE: So we have a long history with the Philippines 'cause it's unfortunately really disaster prone. So we were invited by the government to come in ahead of the storm - unlike an earthquake, you might have a few days. So they set us up in places that they thought the storm would be hit hardest. We had our portable satellite equipment with us and we were ready to set it up as soon as we possibly could.

MARTIN: So these are obviously functions that the government in the Philippines cannot fulfill on their own?

MARGIE: Well, they do but in a disaster of this scale, there's no one that can do it. We found that out in the United States when we've had things like Katrina or Sandy. There is no government that can fulfill all of these responsibilities. And so, we're there to try to help in the very first hours and days of an emergency, to make sure that at the point of impact that there is connection.

MARTIN: Can you walk me through some of the specific kinds of equipment? You mention satellite phones, but what specifically do you import, are you setting up in these communication centers?

MARGIE: Sure. So when we go in, typically we will bring in on our back something called an ISatPhone Pro, which is if you remember the old days of cell phones, it was like a big fat cell phone from the old days but it works with satellites, as opposed to cell towers. And then we bring in something called it BGan. And a BGan looks like a fat laptop but it's a satellite receiver. And so we can use one of these to set up a Wi-Fi bubble around an area and give a dozen or so people Internet connections anywhere in the world.

MARTIN: I don't know how closely you're communicating with your colleagues on the ground in the Philippines. But can you give us a sense of where things stand right now? What is the need they are working to address right now?

MARGIE: Sure. So we're doing a couple of things. One, is when we went in, the first thing we did was we set up three emergency telecom centers in Tacloban, which was the center point of the impact. We set one up for the government responders, a second one for the United Nations responders, and the third one for all of the humanitarian organizations that were coming in. The second thing we did was we went around that area first with the cell phone companies to do an assessment of where there was connectivity and where there was not. And then where they weren't yet operational, we set up humanitarian calling centers. And these were places where people could come in and make a free phone call back to their family.

And that's really where TSF was born was in those kind of operations. The founders had done a more typical emergency response work in the Balkans War, bringing in food and blankets and that kind of thing. But what they found was they would go to these isolated communities where people had been driven from their homes by the war, and people would come out with a little slip of paper that they had hidden in their shoe because the security forces wouldn't search in people's shoes, and they would take the piece of paper out and they would say, this is my brother's number in Germany, can you call him and let him know I'm alive, that we're in this camp? He needs to try to find us and help us.

And so, now we'll go to disasters, you know, unfortunately, lots and lots of disasters around the world, and you'll find people that are in the worse moments of their lives. They're isolated, they don't know where their family is, their families don't know if they're alive or if they're dead. And we try to give them the ability to make that connection so that they can have a little bit of solace at this worst day of their life.

MARTIN: Getting badly-hit areas back online allows all sorts of groups to contribute in previously unimaginable ways.

Mikel Maron is the president of a group of volunteers called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

MIKEL MARON: We call ourselves the Wikipedia of maps because anyone can contribute. Everyone can use the data and literally be able sitting at their computer, they have images of satellite imagery, they have the existing map, and they can edit it. So we can make comparisons and indicate where buildings have been destroyed, where roads are blocked, where bridges are out, and this helps to focus and coordinate the response on the ground.

And we have close to two million features mapped. And by feature I mean like an individual building or an individual segment of road over the last week. You can't hire a company to do that that quickly. Governments don't have that kind of resources, but volunteers are willing to come together and create that kind of map.

MARTIN: For all these types of aid - whether remote or on the ground - connectivity is key.

MARGIE: Even in the most remote places on Earth, we're finding increasingly people have powerful computers in their pockets. We really need to find ways to take advantage of that - for them to tell us what's going on. They can report back on where the greatest needs are, where roads are out, where bridges are out, where cell phone towers are out, and then we can do our job better.

MARTIN: That was Paul Margie of Telecoms San Frontiere, along with Mikel Maron of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, and radio operator Ramon Anquillon in the Philippines.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.