How technology has improved emergency response in Nepal

May 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Communication Technologies, Response

Erica C. Fischer & Lauren Biscombe

Search and Rescue

With new natural and man made disasters comes new applications of existing technology. The recent earthquake in Nepal has highlighted this through crowdsourcing data (check out our previous post), and more recently through the application of NASA technology to find people trapped under rubble. The search-and-rescue technology called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) can detect heartbeats “under 30 feet of rubble, 20 feet of solid concrete and from a distance of 100 feet in open spaces,” according to NASA. This was the first time that FINDER was used in a real life situation and was able to save four men trapped under 10 feet of rubble.

Mapping Roads

As soon as 48 hours after the earthquake, people began mapping Nepal’s roads for rescue. The country has a history of poorly built roads, and the earthquake caused landslides and boulders to block many of them, restricting access to villages. Using high resolution satellite imagery, people from all over the world were able to determine which roads were blocked, buildings that needed to be assessed by engineers, and appropriate landing spots for helicopters delivering aid. All of this information was added to OpenStreetMap which the United Nations, the Nepal army, and the Red Cross have all been using.

Patrick Meier (director of the Qatar Computing Research Institute in Doha and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer) had drones out in Kathmandu by April 28 to obtain images of inaccessible areas. The Red Cross would like to use this technology to map the world before disasters occur in order to gain understanding of vulnerable communities.

Development of existing apps


Twitter India is posting emergency maps and information to help people get in contact with one another as well as aid organizations.


Viber made their pay-per-call service free for users calling from and to Nepal using Viber Out. After the April 25 earthquake, the phone infrastructure was down in Nepal. This made it very difficult for family and friends to reach one another and make sure they were safe.


Apple has created a way to donate to the American Red Cross through iTunes. This capability was available after the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, 2011 Japan Tsunami, and the 2013 Typhoon in the Philippines. Users have the option of a one-click donation.


Many people turn to Facebook after a natural disaster to check-in and share news. Facebook uses the last known location from which users have accessed the internet to check if they are affected by a natural disaster. If users are in a location that has been affected, a notification asking the user to declare themselves “safe” is pushed to their mobile device or computer. Unfortunately, because of the state of Nepal after the earthquake, only 13% of the country had access to the internet.


Google has a “person finder” feature to help friends and family members know their loved ones are safe. Person Finder provides a way for people to search for family or friends after a disaster. The application uses crowdsourcing to find information on the person. But again, this is dependent upon the infrastructure available in the country. Phone service and internet access have been sporadic in Nepal, therefore making these applications difficult to use.

In addition to these applications, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have waived fees for text messaging and phone calls so that family and friends can get in contact with people in Nepal. Skype has made phone calls to Nepali landlines free and is donating a minimum of $1 million to rescue efforts.


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