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Focus put on using tech for disaster response

/ Source: The Associated Press

The suicide bomb that struck a U.N. office in Algeria last December, killing 17 U.N. employees, also took out the agency communications infrastructure necessary for it to respond to the tragedy.

Two communications experts were dispatched from Dubai with satellite telephones and a radio transmitting station. They were up and running less than 24 hours after the attacks.

A new U.N. program to train such communications experts to respond faster and operate better in dangerous and hostile environments got a boost at the World Mobile Congress in Spain, which ended Thursday.

The Vodafone Group Foundation pledged $6.3 million for the effort through its technology partnership with the private United Nations Foundation. The U.N.'s World Food Program, designated the lead communications agency in international crises by nature of its first-responder role, is contributing another $2.6 million.

It was just one of a number of examples at the congress, the largest of its kind, on how the mobile technology sector is contributing know-how and resources to improve lives, particularly in rural regions of developing countries, both for philanthropical and business reasons.

The mobile phone industry's trade association, the GSMA, has established a development fund that it said has succeeded in a campaign to bring down the average price of low-cost handsets from $146 to $58, and is working on initiatives to use mobile technology for social and economic development.

The criteria for the projects — 19 in 11 countries over two years — is not just on improving lives but also "does it make sense for operators," said Dawn Haig-Thomas, GSMA development fund director. "We believe doing good is good business."

She said the positive impact of mobile phones in developing countries is quantifiable, quoting a Deloitte study that found that for every 10 percent increase in handset penetration in developing countries there is a corresponding 1.2 percent increase in gross domestic product.

In Pakistan, the GSMA development fund is working with the country's leading mobile phone operator, Mobilink, to get handsets with prepaid cards to health care workers in remote villages with the goal of improving infant mortality rates and maternal risks by giving ready access to help and resources from larger centers. The workers also can sell time on the phones to earn money, providing an additional economic enterprise, said Mobilink CEO Zouhair A. Khaliq.

And in India, the fund is supporting a project by Idea Cellular Ltd. to use more clean-burning biofuels to power its cellular stations.

In the U.N. training program for emergency technicians, the WFP plans to have 500 standby technicians trained and deployed in strategic locations around the globe; about 20 have already have been trained — including the Dubai team — under a pilot program.

U.N. agencies respond 30 times a year to major disasters or crises where a variety of agencies need to coordinate to get aid and food to victims and to assess the security situations, officials said. Often the first thing to go down are phone lines and mobile service — if they even exist in the areas affected.

"One of the most critical elements is to identify who needs help where. The ability to communicate between all the partners — very often in stressful circumstances, in remote areas and with climatic threats or armed dangers — is key," WFP deputy executive director John Powell told The Associated Press in an interview.

The new program "will allow us all to do a better job," he said.