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Code of Conduct for SMS Disaster Response Presented to Mobile World Congress

BY Julia Wetherell | Tuesday, February 26 2013

The Mobile World Congress is taking place in Barcelona this week, with mobile providers from around the world presenting strategies for proliferating and monetizing new technologies.  Yet as mobile’s reach extends far beyond the realm of the basic phone call, forming a fundamental part of the information infrastructure in developing nations, the humanitarian sector is also on display. 

On Sunday, the Disaster Response Program from GSMA presented a Code of Conduct for SMS use during disaster response, hoping to address the mobile industry’s growing role in humanitarian crisis management.    

Patrick Meier at iRevolution has an overview of the development of the code, which is based in large part on the experience that Meier and other crisis-mapping volunteers faced in running 4636, the Ushahidi platform that helped to locate victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  Named for the SMS shortcode that was secured from FrontlineSMS, the program enabled volunteers to aggregate and map hazards, shortages, and other threats to the safety of the population.  It helped the US Marines take action in the crisis response. 

Yet Meier says that, for such a critical operation, it would have been beneficial to have some best practices in place.  That’s the aim of the new SMS Code of Conduct for General Disaster Response [pdf].

"The humanitarian principle of ‘do no harm’ comes first,” states one of the five general guidelines outlined in the document.  Evaluating what constitutes harm, in the case of mobile-deployed crisis response, is the heart of the matter.  The volunteer team behind 4636 faced this in the issue of obtaining consent to broadcast the emergency tweets, and hand them over to translators in the diaspora.  Because the project was deemed to be in victims’ best interest, consent was ultimately implied.  Yet it was an ethical dilemma that Patrick Meier would have preferred to have a precedent for:

I, for one, never again want to spend 24+ precious hours debating whether or not urgent life-and-death text messages can or cannot be mapped because of uncertainties over data privacy and protection—24 hours during a Search and Rescue phase is almost certain to make the difference between life and death.

The code of conduct also includes strategies for liaising between humanitarian groups and mobile providers during times of crisis.  As mobile approaches to disaster response are increasingly used, such guidelines could set an important standards – as well as increase the efficiency of life-saving missions. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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