Haiti case study

The Need for Communication

On Tuesday 12 January 2010, at five o’clock in the afternoon, a massive earthquake struck Haiti. It left over 300,000 people dead and more than one million people homeless. More than three million were affected in some way. The earthquake also caused a massive dislocation of communities.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) realised that an effective method of two-way communication with disaster affected people was needed. Radio and TV broadcasts, posters, leaflet distribution, loudspeaker trucks and face-to-face discussions were all used. However, it was quickly realised that more was needed. Mobile technology seemed the obvious answer as a high proportion of Haitians own mobile phones.

In times of disaster, a mobile network comes under great stress. Parts of the network may have been damaged. Survivors are also desperate to locate loved ones and to let others know that they are safe; their calls cause congestion. In fact in Haiti, one network, acting under the very best of intention, gave free credit to its customers to help them to do this. The result was extreme network congestion which made it impossible for most people to get a connection and gave the impression that the network had failed.

Clearly a method was needed that provided effective communication without causing stress on the mobile network.

The IFRC decided to base the mobile communication system on SMS text messaging. There were a number of key reasons for doing this:

  • SMS is a basic mobile service and should be available on any GSM network
  • It will be one of the first services to be restored in case of network damage
  • It uses the minimum of network resources
  • SMS text messages are stored on mobile phones, enabling recipients to ’run and tell ‘others who either don’t have a working mobile phone or who are connected to another network

The Challenges

SPAM and Fraud

Many aid agencies responded to Haiti’s need for help. Most of these also recognised the power of SMS messaging to reach the population. This resulted in a deluge of requests for help from the mobile operators for free SMS broadcast. The mobile operators were quick to help but a number of problems resulted.

One of these was that many agencies sent out very similar messages. For example, during the cholera outbreak, multiple messages were sent advising people to ’wash their hands‘. This caused a ’spam effect‘, reducing the attention that recipients paid to these messages generally.

Some requests for help had actually come from fraudsters representing themselves as aid agencies. The mobile operators, not knowing any different, had granted them SMS broadcasts. Some of these broadcasts were then used for advertising goods for sale. In the worst cases, messages telling disaster affected people that they had to pay money to receive Red Cross aid were sent out.

Network Issues

The sending of multiple SMS broadcasts also caused network issues. Many of the mobile phones targeted were not available as they had either been lost or were without power. The networks were therefore hit with large numbers of SMS messages which could not be delivered. This resulted in network congestion and loss of service.


Broadcasting to the entire population is a very clumsy method to use. If, for example, you are running a vaccination programme, you do not want to have the whole population turning up at once. You may also want to send messages about services in a specific area; another challenge for SMS broadcast.

Commercial Network Issues

The mobile network operators themselves have concerns about the effect that the help that they provide might have on their business. Key issues include:

  • Loss of revenue due to network capacity use 
  • Effect on relations with the rest of their customer base 
  • Commercial secrets including information on their customers and network infrastructure.

Response Time

It took some time to get communications properly up and running in Haiti. It was quite clear that the early days were the most critical.

The TERA System

To address the issues discussed above, the IFRC worked in conjunction with one of the local operators, Voila, to create an SMS communication system. Voila is owned by the Trilogy Group. This collaboration meant that the resulting Trilogy Emergency Response Application (TERA) system not only achieved Red Cross objectives, but, because Trilogy has had experience of running several mobile operators, did so with the minimum of impact on the host mobile network.

TERA was deployed in 2010 and has been in operation ever since. Further developments have been added to the system since that time. Today TERA is able to send geographically targeted messages to disaster affected people and to send automatic responses to inbound SMS texts.

Get Involved

Mobile Operators: Implement TERA

The TERA system helps us to save more lives by delivering timely, targeted, advice to disaster affected communities by providing vital messaging that makes our aid effort more efficient. Our aim is to pre-position the system around the world in advance of any disaster. That way we are able to move into operation as soon as a disaster develops. To implement TERA, we need your help. We need access to your mobile network.

This access will be conducted under clear terms of usage and will at all times be controlled by your staff. Your staff can throttle the rate at which TERA is able to send messages. You can therefore make sure that TERA does not cause any congestion on your network.

By implementing TERA, you are helping to save the lives and protect the livelihood of your subscribers. You are strengthening your society’s ability to recover from disasters and crises.

It is something that only you can do. Without your help we cannot deploy TERA. Implementing TERA is, without question, the right thing to do. It is also the sensible thing to do from a business perspective. You are protecting your customer base in times of disaster. Your staff will also feel better about working for you and your customers will have another reason for choosing your network.

Installing TERA is a very efficient way of delivering value to your community. It leverages the core aspects of your business. You have the necessary infrastructure. Without you, we cannot implement TERA. In Haiti, the participating operator invested some $50,000 in implementing the TERA system. They provided SMS text messaging off peak for no cost. However the value of the programme to the relief effort has been estimated at over $3 Million. It is hard to think of any other way in which such a good return on investment in social responsibility programmes can be found.


If you are involved in the telecom industry but are not a mobile operator, you can still help. There are a number of ways.


IFRC two year report:


Global IFRC Report on Haiti: http://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/208400-First%20anniversary%20Haiti%20EQ%20operation%20report_16b.pdf

Alert Net Article: http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/haiti-shows-why-poor-communication-stalls-relief-report/

British Red Cross Article: http://blogs.redcross.org.uk/emergencies/2011/12/we-need-to-talk-good-communications-help-haiti-recover/


To find out more get in touch with our Global Beneficiary Communication Coordinator, Will Rogers: will.rogers@ifrc.org , Phone: +60 19 3232 480

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