Rumble: Technology and Humanitarian Relief Work

I am a relief worker. Yet, I am not the one handing out food to the hungry, I do not help stacking bricks to build houses in remote villages damaged by floods. Nor do I work in a hospital taking care of those wounded in a civil war. I am a technical person and work in a technical area. I have a support function in the chain of things. Sometimes I feel far from the reality of the actual relief work (see this post and this one). Rewarding then are those moments when one of the technical products or services I am involved in, catches on, and is seen as having a direct and relevant impact on our relief work.

I just found back this article, written by Paul Harris in Alertnet (a Reuters subsidiary) ten years ago. It describes a system called DFMS, the Deep Field Mailing System. DFMS brought 'affordable Email' to the masses using 'free air waves', during the times where satellite communications costed USD 5 per minute at 9,600 baud...

This post might be a bit techy, but interesting for those interested :-) Allow me my 5 minutes of glory, ha!

By Paul Harris

KAMPALA, Nov 16 1997 (Alertnet) -
Peter is an enthusiast. Peter Casier, a 38 year-old Belgian, has headed up the World Food Programme's Technical Support Unit (TSU) in Kampala, Uganda for the past two and a half years. Technical support may not sound exactly like the most exciting end of the aid business but, in fact, the Uganda-based operation has become the model for telecommunications operations throughout the UN: that's why Peter and members of his team flew out from Uganda Saturday night - destination Honduras on open ended assignment to set up telecomms for the Central American relief effort.

Telecomms are just three years old in WFP. They started in Kampala with Peter and his team. Today, the 15-strong team - 13 locals and just two internationals - handle satellite, HF and VHF comms, IT, computers, provision of power, and repair and maintenance of all electronic equipment right the way across a broad swathe of central Africa from Brazzaville in the west to Dar es Salaam in the east.

The WFP telecomms operation is based on high frequency (HF) communications which are both prevalent and familiar to UN staff. Kampala has integrated 82 stations (including ten e-mail carriers) into the network and, most significantly, has devised the technology whereby e-mail communications can be reliably exchanged using HF radios connected to a data modem: what is termed the Deep-Field Mailing System (DFMS). Currently, the system is handling more than 200,000 e-mails a month, representing three gigabytes of data, both within the region and to and from the Internet.
Peter is justifiably proud of the achievement. "The great thing is we can be totally independent of any public infrastructure - telephones, electricity or communications."

There are several advantages to DFMS, which became fully operational during 1997, as usage was extended to WFP's Implementing Partners and sister UN agencies. The cost savings have been substantial; field security has been improved and operational effectiveness enhanced. Additionally, remote locations and field workers have been connected to the Internet. DFMs utilises a standard e-mail programme which can carry any type of attachment, be it Word document, digital picture or, even, sound. Each station - office, car or mobile HQ - has its own unique Internet e-mail address; all are connected by HF radio, or local telephone lines, to an e-mailserver which is, in turn, connected to the Kampala nerve centre by HF radio, local telephone lines or the Internet. Kampala is connected to the Internet via a dedicated 64 Kbps full time dedicated link to a local service provider "direct into the dish" to go around any local failures.

The monthly running cost of regional DFMS is just US$10,400 comprising landline and Internet link costs. if this system were still to be running on conventional fax traffic, it is estimated that the monthly cost would be in excess of US$1.5 million and the annual saving in the region is reckoned at round US$20 million ! The saving on using commercial e-mail at $0.30 per Kbyte is still very substantial indeed - around US$8 million a year.

There have been some dramatic and successful uses of DFMS. HF e-mail stations were set up during the East Zaire emergency and an air ops base to cover evacuations from Uvira was set up at Entebbe within just six hours. WFP was among the first UN agencies to enter Congo/Brazzaville after the civil war. The TSU team entered Brazzaville armed with a mobile HF radio e-mail system installed in a car and a digital camera (Ed: see
this shortstory). As the report observes, "Digital pictures were taken from Brazzaville town, the remains of our former offices and UN compounds, and emailed to WFP Kampala and Rome, as well as to UNICEF HQ while they were still shooting in the streets next to us...".

TSU in Kampala have also developed the '141',as it is known. Not just a Ugandan-registered WFP heavy duty Landcruiser, Peter says "it is a concept": a complete mobile emergency communications centre. TSU has equipped it with extra batteries for powering telecomms equipment; an e-mail station using HF radio; HF voice comms; VHF mobile radio; air band radio for communicating with helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; satellite telephone; computer, digital camera and printer; and radio masts. The vehicle is kept in a constant state of readiness: emergency kits are put in the back, it can be driven onto a Buffalo aircraft and landed in the bush. "All the main communications features are up as the car drives out of the plane, with full features deployed within the next five minutes. You can send/receive e-mails and photographs to and from anywhere in the world, telephone to/from anywhere in the world and support handheld radios to a radius of 30 km."

The concept has been well received further afield and a '141' will shortly be operating in Honduras. The Kampala-based unit has been favourably reviewed by UNSECOORD (the UN Security Coordinator's Office) and World Vision plans to equip several vehicles similarly. So successful has DFMS proved, a commercial imitator, Bushnet, set up by two 'breakaway'members of Peter's team, has established itself in Kampala and is working with both commercial and NGO clients providing deep field e-mail connections. They, in turn, have been so successful, two other companies in Uganda are preparing similar services. The NGO Uganda Connectivity has set up e-mail postal services in remote areas using the TSU's technology and manufacturer Codan, a name familiar to all NGOs and IGOs using HF radios, uses the Kampala TSU for consultancy work in exchange for equipment.

As Peter says, "The UN has developed a system that has been picked up commercially by big companies who want to exploit it. I believe this operation is unique."

His claims are graphically endorsed as the telephone rings in his office. It's the WFP Emergency Response Centre in Rome. He listens intently. "I guess we could be on a plane tomorrow," he asserts. And then, covering the 'phone with his hand, "Right, everybody. We're off to Honduras !".

The humanitarian relief work is a weird world. Check out this post if you want to have a clearer insight.


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