Quake spurs youth cyber relief work

The Bangkok Post

The recent 7.3-magnitude aftershock which followed the earlier 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated Nepal has again drawn global attention. The death toll has already surpassed 8,100. Still, it is hard to imagine the scale of devastation had the earthquakes occurred 15 years ago. Several thousand more people would have died, and much of the world would still be unaware of the catastrophe.

But, cellular technology towers withstood the quake while the buildings around them crumbled. Before the mainstream media reports came out, news from individual sources had quickly penetrated social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Despite limited technological capacity, what is outstanding is how constructively it has been used during the present disaster, despite only a quarter of the population having access to the internet and 90% of them using only a 2G connection.

The media organisations which rushed to Kathmandu and its vicinity in the aftermath of the disaster are sharing the stories that they should be covering — the grim reality on the ground. However, the international media is also portraying Nepal as if everything has ended. This is doom mongering, as the quake has in fact triggered many positive instances of social behaviour.

Social media has been greatly instrumental in the relief operations taking place in the country. In particular, Nepalese youth are showing an unprecedented level of commitment. The international media to some extent has failed to share these stories of initiatives led by the younger generation.

In fact, this strata of the population was one of the first to take part in rescue efforts. Nepalese youth are making optimum use of internet technology to aid the relief work. Their Facebook walls demonstrate the amazing work that they are doing despite limited resources and skills.

In the aftermath of the disaster, technology giants such as Skype facilitated youth endeavours by announcing free calls to and from Nepal. Fortunately, those young people with a smartphone or laptop connected to the internet, reached out to temporary refugee camps, and began to help families to connect to their relatives.

In the face of calamity, people have teamed up and initiated online help desks to connect those who are far away with their family members at home. It is usually arduous to negotiate congested international communications networks in such a distressing situation. However, all you now need to do to reach your friends is to send these teams a message on Facebook or via Twitter. They then often find your family within a few minutes.

Furthermore, within hours of each of the two big tremors, Facebook introduced the safety check feature, where people could mark friends on as “Safe”. People hurried to mark their friends safe in order to reassure acquaintances at home and abroad.

In another instance, young people teamed up to use Google’s Person Finder tool to fill in the information of missing people, and those with information about someone started feeding their information into the system.

Hundreds of young people have gathered and are using their social media skills to discover where the relief is needed most, and then they pledge donations like tarpaulins, rice, or medicine. The relief material is then transported to the most hard-hit areas by volunteers, who also establish local communications and identify local youths who can serve as channels for the relief work.

The creative uses of social media have also led young people to report data regarding physical and human losses as well as to assess the availability of temporary camps and relief supplies. Youth-driven teams are crowdsourcing the information. Now, anyone with a basic cell phone can report physical damage or loss of life as well as seek help.

As the nation receives more aid from abroad, both in terms of resources and personnel, there are admittedly increased chances of financial misconduct, and the effectiveness of some of the aid work may be questioned. To address these concerns and facilitate effective aid delivery, youth groups and relief organisations are implementing a social audit of the rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts in order to make the post-disaster efforts more reliable, accountable and effective.

There is much to be learned from these independent voluntary initiatives in terms of disaster preparedness. There is a need for social immunisation by introducing strict guidelines for construction companies, as well as earthquake-preparedness classes, based on the experience of nations like Thailand.

Governments in areas of the globe vulnerable to earthquakes should have strong post-disaster relief mechanisms ready, and the youth should be equipped with basic first-aid training. Furthermore, the technology to act transparently, and democratically should be embedded in each and every step that we as societies decide to take. This use of technology and the mobilisation of youth have the potential to create resilience and keep hope alive even in adverse circumstances.

The article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The Bangkok Post on May 19, 2015.

Surfing in the dark: Nepal’s need for economic reforms

[Myself, Daphne Koller and Professor Duneier]
More than a year has passed since I visited Princeton University in October 2012. I was there to participate in a panel discussion organized by the university. I was among the 40,000 students around the world who had been taking the online ‘Sociology’ course on Coursera and I had been chosen to visit the university and participate in the panel discussion because of my active participation in classes. I still vividly remember the excitement amidst the nervousness that had engulfed me at being on the stage, in-front of faculty members and students of the university presenting about how internet and online courses were helping students from developing countries like me. It was the moment I realized Thomas L. Friedman is indeed right when he says the world is getting flatter. The information communication technology revolution has indeed leveled the playing field for people across developed and developing societies. An Ivy-league education is at the finger tips of students around the world. Economic reforms undertaken by Nepal in early 1990s are also to be thanked for this wonderful opportunity I got. Nepal opened up its economy to the world and liberalized a few sectors (internet and telecommunications being one of them) during the reforms. And thanks to it, today more and more Nepalese have access to telecommunication services as well as the internet. Thanks to the increased competition among telecommunication service providers as well as internet service providers, the cost of access to internet have come down significantly and almost one-fourth of Nepalese are estimated to have access to the internet. I am sure the numbers will go up significantly in future and the day when every Nepalese will have access to internet is not far away.
However, when I look at some other aspects of lives of ordinary Nepalese, I find that the future that I dream of is nowhere as near as I would want it to be. Till date around 63 percent of households in Nepal lack access to electricity. Even the rest who have access to electricity suffer from power cuts during dry seasons lasting up to 16 hours daily. Ironically, Nepal is said to have a potential of generating more than 43000 Megawatt of electricity from hydro-power alone which would be enough to make Nepal a middle-income country through electricity exports. Power sector was among the sectors not addressed by the economic reforms of early 1990s and we still have a state-owned monopoly Nepal Electricity Authority which controls the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in Nepal. It amazes me how Nepal Electricity Authority manages to incur huge losses despite being a monopoly and how could it hire 11000 plus employees when it has already accumulated so huge amount of liabilities. While 63 percent of our households are reeling in darkness, Nepal Electricity Authority has become a preferred avenue for corruption and nepotism for politicians as shown by the recent arrest of a number of Nepal Electricity Authority officials for their possible involvement in a multimillion-dollar transformer purchase scam.
It has been less than two decades since internet came to Nepal and yet around one fourth of the population already have access to it and the number is increasing rapidly. On the other hand, Nepal got its first hydro-power plant more than a century ago in 1911 in the form of Pharping hydro-power plant. But even after a century later, about two-thirds of Nepalese households do not have access to something as basic as electricity. It infuriates me to see that politicians haggle over who to recruit as managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority or whom to award a certain hydro-power project while general public is suffering under power crisis. I believe Nepal is in dire need of economic reforms, especially in basic utility sectors like hydro-power. There is a need to introduce and encourage competition in this sector which will eventually not only result in better delivery of services but also encourage innovations. The government should break the monopoly of Nepal Electricity Authority and make it more accountable to the consumers it is supposed to serve by opening up the sectors for private players. The government should also restructure the organization under a private-public-partnership model so that it becomes more effective and efficient without losing the sight of its objectives. Only then, we can dream of a day when we will be taking energy as granted like many of us do to internet

Possibility of mHealth intervention in Nepal

Nepal is located in the Himalayas and contains eight of the world’s ten highest peaks. Its remoteness has created inaccessibility and limited the access to health information and delivery of health services. Apart from by foot, no better alternatives of transportation for seeking health services are available in most of the rural parts of the country. Because of which, a significant delay occurs in getting appropriate treatment in the short run. Opposite, a significant gap of information about sexual and reproductive health among adolescents has been measured in recent years. This is mainly because the application of traditional approaches occupies major part of disseminating health related information.


For instance, according to the National Demographic Health Survey (NODS-2011), knowledge level with regard to family planning among 15-19 years age group among married women is 99.9% whereas current use of contraceptives is only 14.4%. However, 41.5% of these women still reported to have unmet needs. Similarly, 97% of male and 88.7% of female of age group 15-19 years have heard about HIV and AIDS, but at the same time while comparing the comprehensive knowledge on preventive measures amongst the same group was found only 32.7% and 25% respectively. 

Furthermore, According to Nepal Adolescents and Youth Survey, 2012, there is poor communication among youth when it comes to discussion about sexual health. 51.80% young girls (10-24) were reported having discussed about the issues related to marriage, pregnancy, menstruation, love, family planning, sexual intercourse, wet dreams and puberty which is more than 48.2% young boys. Observing the scenario, better options for providing health information and services are to be identified. The stigmatized sensitivity of the SRHR issue demands youth friendly, easily acceptable and immediate source of information.

mHealth may be an effective way of reaching the people mostly in the remote areas in a cost-effective way. mHealth involves the use of mobile phones and other wireless devices to promote health education and raising awareness among target groups, by delivering health information and services, disease management, treatment protocols and linking data of clients to health insurance providers, etc.

Mobile technology has made a recent and rapid appearance into low- and middle-income countries like Nepal, along with the improvements in telecommunications, technology infrastructure and reduced costs of mobile handsets. Nepal Telecommunication Authority states that over 75% of the population has now access to a mobile phone. Mobile technology can be a method with enormous potential of disseminating knowledge to people who do not have easy and immediate access to health information or health facilities in Nepal. Considering the fact that a large part of the population is connected with the communication network based on an explosive increase of smartphones and mobile internet access, the possibility of delivering health information and services to the needy people using mobile technology is high.

The National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRH) Communication Strategy, 2011 has further suggested for the application of effective media advocacy toolkit as well as harnessing wireless Technology. It strongly advocates that the Mobile technology can play a vital role in raising awareness about ASRH and creating demand for services by promoting Adolescent Friendly Service centers and Services. Reach out to mobile companies and others in mobile technology to reach adolescents – through texts, downloadable mobile applications that are games, ringtones, downloadable adolescent ‘real’ stories, etc.
There have been several success stories of mHealth in various parts of the world. CycleTel is one of the example which was implemented by Georgetown University’s Institute of Reproductive Health (IRH). CycleTel empowers women by providing them with accessible reproductive health information through SMS. The prototype was tasted in two cities of India, Lucknow and New Delhi. A woman learns about CycleTel and opts to join the service by sending an SMS to a designated number. She sends the date of her last period to the service and begins using CycleTel. The service alerts her of her fertile days during each cycle. Additional messages support correct use of the method, help her monitor her cycle length, and offer information on other reproductive health issues, such as the importance of optimal birth spacing.
Some other successful cases are Wazazi Nipendeni from Tanzania, Project Masiluleke of South Africa, Andhra Pradesh Encephalitis Syndrome Surveillance Information Management System (AESSIMS),  Nacer from Peru, National Immunization Programme (Measles Rubella Campaign 2068-69), Nepal.

With the rising mobile penetration rate in Nepal, and existing policy framework provide a very plausible reason in the urgency of mHealth intervention in Nepal. There is a need of coordinated effort among the works being conducted by different development stakeholders. After studying several success stories of mHealth intervention, the time has now come it be used in Nepal as well.

The technological intervention can be made for several reasons. Some of the areas, where the intervention could be implemented but not limited to are, for immunization tracking during institutional delivery; for continuous information supply for immunization schedule; for antenatal checkup of young pregnant girls; for sending reminders and information of family planning methods and frequency, eg. Send SMS at the interval of every 3 months for the reminder of Depo; for tracking and sending useful information to track and monitor the growth of children; for several awareness campaigns; for increased accountability of youth friendly health services and for coordinated effort among various stakeholders like Government, I/NGOs, Telecommunication operators, existing health service providers, and activists is the key to the success of such future technological interventions in the sector of Health in Nepal.