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Technology’s Untapped Power in Times of Crisis

On June 18, my country was hit by the tropical storm Son-Tinh.  Over 24,000 families from rural villages were affected when the violent power of Son-Tinh put so much pressure on the infrastructure that the Xepien-Xe Nam Noy Dam broke, inundating 55,000 hectares of land with the equivalent of over 2 million olympic swimming pools of water. The government declared a National Emergency Disaster Zone, with efforts still ongoing today.

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Duangmala Phommavong, Managing Director of Be-Bound ASEAN

Emerging countries like mine are more vulnerable to disasters because of their lack of infrastructure. This is why I started working with Be-Bound. A society’s preparedness and responsiveness to an emergency like this one are in direct relation to its relationship with technology. In this case, the storm is a reminder of how important it is to connect our rural villages to technology. Be-Bound brings their connectivity solution to Laos, so that apps and IoT will have the farthest reach possible, and even bypass typical infrastructure demands.

Natural disasters are unforeseen and our decisions on the implementation of technology, before, during and after determines the relative success of final outcomes. In the case of Lao PDR, the storm affected villages, destroying homes, businesses, gathering places, and lives. Institutions across the country were challenged to respond to the size of the catastrophe, gathering resources from people to food to shelter and medication. Government officials were tested on the effectiveness of their rescue systems. And no matter how good a job was done, no matter how many people we saved, there’s no question that we can always do better. We have to, because lives were lost.

So, with the best intentions, how can we prepare for the worst if/when there is a next time? We can start with what not to do. There are examples of disasters in other countries where emergency response delivered supplies that were out of touch with actual needs. For example, after the Haiti earthquake, donations came from thousands of well-meaning people, but clothing donations included winter coats and high heels.

All evidence points toward the best working solutions being inclusive, meaning we take the time to discover the needs of each affected population (women, men, children, handicapped etc.), and we make sure we meet those exact needs to the best of our abilities, ideally using a workforce made up of people with particular sensitivities to those populations (for example putting women on the emergency team that’s tasked with women’s healthcare issues in emergency response). Inclusivity means valuing every person and their unique experience. In times of distress, this means listening with respect and understanding, and responding according to identified issues. This translates into effective emergency response.

But the human element can only get us so far. For the best emergency response, you need supply lines to be intact and authorities to act fast. But when disaster strikes, infrastructure is usually further weakened. This is why I believe so much in the power of technology, as it stretches the human ability to problem solve.

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The Son-Tinh storm caused severe damage in rural villages in Laos

Be-Bound is a frugal and social innovation made to bridge the digital gap. By using existing networks (from WiFi all the way down to GSM), Be-Bound’s patented mobile technology, Augmented Connectivity, opens new possibilities for what data can be sent where. Connectivity stays constant for apps sending emails, attachments, photos (everything except video), as long as there is a mobile network, any network, even if there is no bandwidth available. In disaster situations when roads are damaged, Augmented Connectivity can be integrated into drones for example, to get people what they need despite difficult terrain. Emergency responders can be in direct contact with people in need of supplies or services, in real-time.

The potential for Augmented Connectivity goes beyond emergency response. This technology finally gives us a real solution to bring digital tools to rural areas to enhance education, healthcare, agriculture, and communication to improve daily life for all the people.

Until today, instead of being a unifying force, the introduction of technology to Laos has done more to widen the gap of living conditions between those living in cities and those living in rural villages. While those in cities experience accelerated progress, people living in the rural areas of Laos are excluded from knowledge and from the digital world economy. Rather than being included, they are increasingly being left behind. This leaves us with a greater risk of inequality, and it’s totally preventable.

My father’s family comes from one of the rural villages affected by the Son-Tinh storm. Decades ago, when my father was a young man, he left his life, his family, and everything he knew, for a better life in the city. His experience is what has driven me to feel a responsibility to connect the unconnected, and meet them where they are. Populations should not have to migrate to get an education or a better quality of life.

As a female entrepreneur, I find myself particularly reflecting on how the current circumstances affect women. Women’s socio-economic progress is challenging enough in normal day-to-day environments, but add a natural disaster to the mix, and progress can be paralyzed, and even set back a number of years. I mention this because as we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, we need to be aware of its context: the environmental and social climate we’re living in. Not only do we need to ensure that technologies introduced work in favor of women’s progress, but in emerging countries especially, natural disasters such as this tropical storm need to be dealt with in the best possible way in order to avoid putting populations more at risk, hindering chances of advancement.

Emerging countries are so named because there is an understanding that they are still catching up.. South Asian countries still have significant room to rise on the human development index (HDI) (a measurement system used by the United Nations Development Program to measure a country’s development level). As we are all striving to meet the sustainable development goals, we cannot afford to waste time, and when disasters strike, it puts affected populations at increased risk. This is why it’s so important that we get two things right:

1) develop the technology landscape for rural areas so that digital is for everyone: every voice is heard, and every person has equal opportunity. Keeping rural villages connected improves daily life before and after disasters and accelerates progress for the country’s development index.

2) use our digital know-how to swiftly and strategically apply the right combination of technologies when disasters strike in a way that allows the populations to voice their needs in real-time, and keeps them connected to outside life and rescue teams so that the response efforts are effective and the isolating effects of disaster are lessened through increased communication. Collaborative efforts between technology partners, government, and relief organizations will allow for the best inclusive approach.

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The land was flooded with an equivalent of 2 million olympic swimming pools of water

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But disasters exacerbate pain points for the poorest and most vulnerable, and watching the storm have such a devastating impact on the people of Laos is a good enough reason to keep going forward for positive change. Responding to a disaster with food and rescues isn’t enough. We have to plant the seeds of growth so that everyone has the tools to carve their own path and reach the level of success they themselves desire.

 

This month I will have the honor of speaking at the Women’s Economic Forum in Singapore. The panel discussion is entitled, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Good, The Bad, and The Unforeseen”. Let’s start a discussion about making real changes and take actions towards inclusivity, for the people of Laos, of emerging countries and everywhere. Connectivity is essential to the development of any population worldwide. Connectivity is vital to my people. What about yours?

– by Duangmala Phommavong

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society.

Duangmala’s participation in the forum can now be seen here: