When we talk about “mobile health technologies” you probably conjure up an image of a shiny wearable device or a smartphone in the hands of a lab technician with a white coat, stethoscope dangling from her neck. And just as with Mobius Clinic – or any of our cutting edge medical apps – mHealth is changing the way medicine is practiced in hospitals and clinics across the developed world. But what about everywhere else?

It turns out that mobile technology has been game-changing for disaster relief and humanitarian aid, especially in the developing world. In a 2011 TEDx talk, Paul Conneally tells the story of how a disastrous earthquake in Haiti taught humanitarian groups an unexpected lesson: the power of mobile devices to coordinate, inform and guide relief efforts.

The IFRC’s TERA app allows aid agencies and mobile phone users in disaster areas to interact in real time via SMS

At the time of the earthquake in 2010, 80% of people in Haiti had mobile devices and many were signalling their need for help via SMS. With 1.2 million people left homeless and major areas without electricity, entrepreneurs sprung up mobile phone charging stations in areas with no power. Disaster response planners wanted to figure out how they could tap into this new widespread use of mobile phones and improve their response efforts.

An initial simple advantage was the ability for disaster response teams to track population movement with more accuracy than ever before. As a 2011 study based on the Haiti earthquake concluded, “mobile phone data provide a more detailed and robust picture of population movement than was otherwise available during the disaster response effort.”

But something much bigger emerged in response to the Haiti disaster: TERA (Trilogy Emergency Response Application), an app that can send and receive SMS texts to all cell phones in a targeted area. TERA was developed in partnership with Red Cross and has now been used to help communities prepare for disasters, communicate early warnings before disasters, improve public health campaigns like cholera prevention, and even build awareness around sensitive health-related issues like gender-based violence.

Mobile technologies have also been game-changing for humanitarian aid, especially in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. As Business Insider wrote last fall, aid workers report that smartphones are empowering migrants to make smarter decisions and transforming the way that aid is delivered to them. Among the most popular apps for the job is Google Maps. In addition to allowing refugees to stay in touch with family via apps like Skype and WhatsApp, GPS-equipped smartphones mean refugees are able to take control of their travel, more often avoiding the high prices and exploitative conditions frequently offered by people-traffickers.

While natural disasters and immigration crises can seem distant from mHealth trends in the developed world, mobile technologies are being creatively deployed to keep people safer and healthier across the globe. In the context of disaster response planning and humanitarian aid, new apps like TERA and everyday apps like Google Maps are giving a whole new meaning to mobile health technologies.

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