Industry Voices

Humanitarian connectivity: directly supporting people

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Florent Bervas, an ICT specialist with Télécoms Sans Frontières, talks about the NGO’s work after the 2020 Beirut port explosions

In this uncertain world, having watertight humanitarian aid processes in place continues to grow in importance. With crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war and natural disasters having detrimental effects on communities, connectivity increases in importance. Providing connectivity in a disconnected environment is the speciality of Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF).

This is how the NGO set up call centres and WhatsApp bots to connect communities, and help survivors contact their families and request help from NGOs, after the Beirut port explosions in 2020.

TSF’s work in Beirut

On the 4 August 2020, two explosions went off in Beirut’s port, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000 and leaving 300,000 homeless. Lebanon’s national healthcare system in Beirut, already under a massive amount of pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was overwhelmed. The city itself had already been in an economic crisis, and this disaster left the people of Lebanon, and more than one million refugees in the country, facing limited healthcare, poverty and daily power cuts.

Three days after the explosions, TSF deployed a team to Beirut to help deal with the humanitarian crisis. TSF worked closely with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to set up reliable communications to help the victims regain control of their lives.

In collaboration with a local organisation, Live Love Lebanon, TSF set up a call centre and a WhatsApp bot that allowed families affected by the explosion to request assistance from the NGOs best placed to respond to their needs (in particular, those providing food, medicine and clothes, and assistance with hygiene, reconstruction and finances).

TSF’s technology

TSF’s emergency call centre is a telecommunications system that uses reliable and efficient IP-based communications to help victims of a crisis.

Depending on the nature of the emergency, two different approaches can be taken. The first are ambulant emergency call centres that provide services to locations that are in immediate need of connectivity. The second approach is to set up permanent call centres, which tend to be placed in locations that will consistently present higher demands for services.

Both systems are composed of three main components: a private branch exchange system (PBX), a single board computer (SBC), and a set of analogue handsets. The PBX connects the analogue phones to the VoIP infrastructure. The SBC then routes traffic to the server and onwards to the VoIP provider. The SBC is accessible through a VPN for monitoring and troubleshooting purposes.

Depending on the type of connection available, a router or a conventional 3G or 4G device will also be required. The SBC can connect to a Wifi network or a router using a network cable, or use a 3G or 4G mobile device, to provide connectivity. No matter how the SBC is connected to the internet, its connection with the server is encrypted and secured, protecting the privacy of the transmitted information.

Different implementations can be carried out based on situations on the ground, as the system has been designed to adapt to field conditions. Satellite-based communications can also be used to allow worldwide coverage. In addition, 3G/4G implementation methods can offer a more cost-effective solution where mobile networks or fibre/XDSL are available. If existing connectivity is not dedicated to this system, a router can be used to guarantee the minimum bandwidth the VoIP system needs. Encryption and compression can also be configured to ensure privacy and link optimisation.

Using TSF’s call centres

In Beirut, this system was installed to allow the Live Love Lebanon team to manage requests for assistance and put the victims in contact with NGOs. Each inbound request for assistance was handled by a team in charge of analysing requests and calling victims to get further information. Another team was responsible for handling the requests and forwarding them to partner NGOs. Thanks to a simultaneous calling system, this unit was able to handle up to 200 requests per day.

In December 2020, with the help of other NGOs, TSF’s support was extended to provide psychological aid through the call centre. This allowed victims to begin healing from the mental trauma they experienced.

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