How Google, Viber, Facebook and other tech firms came to the aid of Nepal Earthquake survivors

When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 technology companies stepped up to help with aid efforts, since then they have been playing an increasing role in disaster relief and in the aftermath of a 7.8-magnitute earthquake in Nepal tech behemoths from Google and Facebook to Vodafone and Viber have been leveraging their influence to help those affected.

Facebook led the charge, launching its ‘Safety Check’ feature in Nepal and surrounding areas. By using the city listed in your profile, as well as geolocation data, the social network can determine whether or not you may have been affected by a natural disaster and sends a push notification to confirm whether or not you’re safe.

Upon activating the feature, which was introduced last as a direct response to people turning to social media in times of crisis, founder Mark Zukerberg wrote in a post: “When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.”

Within a few days the system had been used over 7 million times.

Local volunteers were also recruited through the use of the social networking giant as the race against time to locate survivors got underway.

Similarly Google - which lost one of its own, executive Dan Fredinburg in the avalanches on Mount Everest caused by the quake - has enabled its ‘Person Finder’ feature which “allows individuals to post and search for the status of relatives and friends affected by a disaster,” essentially crowdsourcing information about those in affected areas.

Though both Safety Check and Person Finder address a real problem exposed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, where multiple websites needed to be searched in order to find people, the biggest challenge in this instance is internet access, or lack thereof.

A recent evaluation of internet infrastructure in South Asia commissioned by the United Nations Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) classified Nepal’s connectivity as ‘weak’ and its fixed and mobile infrastructure ‘limited’, and after the earthquake hit internet monitoring company Dyn confirmed that the quake had “rattled” the country’s already constrained internet service.

Such connectivity issues have led mobile operator Vodafone’s charitable arm the Vodafone Foundation to deploy the Instant Network Mini – its phone network in a backpack – in the Kathmandu Valley. Set up in just 10 minutes the network can connect five users at a time to global telecoms networks, allowing thousands of messages to be sent. And at just 11kg the kit can be carried to remote locations on foot.

Vodafone Foundation director, Andrew Dunnett, reveals efforts in Nepal follow the foundation’s work in Vanatu after a cyclone last month, in the Philippines following its two most recent typhoons and Kaikor, Kenya, following in the wake of severe droughts.

“We are currently working with NGOs and local operators on the ground in Nepal, who will soon inform us of the full scope of the mission. They are currently establishing how much damage there is to mobile network infrastructure in the area close to the epicentre, and the team are there to support once we know,” he adds.

In addition to Vodafone, US networks AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have set out to help by waiving fees for calls and messages sent by users in Nepal. Speaking to The Drum, Roni Singleton, national public relations manager at Sprint, explained the operator has a “long history of providing critical support during emergency situations” including Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011.

“Sprint recognises that communication during such disasters in key and our customers need to stay connected to their families and friends. It’s our hope that Sprint’s support of the relief efforts through the Sprint Foundation by matching out employees’ contributions to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, as well as waiving standard text-messaging fees for various mobile phone donation campaigns, will encourage people to give more during this tragedy.

Relative newcomer to the telecoms marker, Viber has also made calls for users of its service in Nepal free to any destination with chief operating officer, Michael Shmilov, revealing to The Wall Street Journal in the wake of the tragedy that the voice and messaging app has around 3 million users in the Himalayan region.

But what do charities make of the tech sector muscling in on disaster relief? Concern Worldwide chief information officer, Vincent Richardson, welcomes it revealing to The Drum that companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Google, Facebook and “other more specialised” businesses offer much-needed support outwith times of crisis as well.

“The tech sector really does play a powerful role in supporting charities like Concern, especially when disaster strikes, and it’s not just their cash that helps, it’s also donations of hardware, software and equipment. We welcome their expertise and they have been extremely generous in supporting us,” he explains.

“We have the same kind of infrastructure as say a private company with an income of maybe €150m per annum but what we don’t necessarily have is the resources and the fund to go out and buy the servers and systems and data centres these companies have, and they have some amazing equipment.”

Part of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), Concern Worldwide is also a member of NetHope which provides a single touch point between members and major technology companies, foundations and individuals and counts International Medical Corps, Save the Children and WaterAid amongst its members and BT, Dell, Google, Microsoft and more as supporters.

“We’re not in this alone,” says Richardson. “Through collaboration we can work together to share knowledge, share information and use our combined size to work with technology companies in a way that isn’t fragmented.”

“It’s heartening to know charities have support from the highest levels within these companies which is vital for humanitarian organisations concerned with disaster relief to really support our respective emergency response teams and make sure technology is helping them to be as effective as they can be now and in the future.”

At the time of writing, 7,040 people were understood to have died during the disaster according to the government.

Donations can be made to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal for Nepal on the official website.