If there was anything Typhoon Ondoy (international codename Ketsana) showed Filipinos in 2009, it was that technology could spell the difference between life and death. In a country that sits on both the Typhoon Belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire, mobile computing and communications technology provide Filipinos with the advantages they need to survive – in more ways than those made obvious in the urban setting.
During Ondoy’s fury, mobile phones and the global positioning system (GPS) embedded in these devices served as beacons for locating stranded people. These phones were literally lifelines for informing family and friends where they were by voice call and SMS, too. An online effort to manage and direct rescue and relief operations proved to be very effective, and social networking sites like Facebook and micro-blogging site Twitter drew a speedy and unprecedented volunteer effort that filled the gap left by government response teams that had been hampered by downed landlines, lack of supplies and poor coordination.
Donations of food, blankets, medicines and clothing to stricken communities reached these areas in time to be of good use and it was as if the spirit of EDSA 1986 had literally come online, with Filipinos across the islands and across time zones linking arms to help those who had been hardest hit by the storm. The distribution of these relief goods and efforts was effectively monitored and implemented in mere hours and days instead of the usual wait of weeks to months, plus the shipment, and delivery of these goods was tracked and documented using other mobile devices such as digital still and video cameras and transmitted for both transparency and efficiency over the web.
Filipinos are tech-savvy and it is a rare Pinoy who does not own a mobile phone or two; and many of those who have mobile handsets also access the Internet using these mighty-mite devices. Over one-third of the country’s resident population is online, mostly through Internet cafes and portable little dongles that enable them to wirelessly browse the web from anywhere that they may get a signal. Technology is an enabler and this is particularly true in the Philippines, especially now that Typhoon Pedring (international codename Nesat) is exiting. Early warnings spread virally, over television and on radio enabled some 100,000 people in the storm’s path to get out of the way. The sufficient warning the country got also enabled school authorities to declare the suspension of classes before students got stranded on campus. Flood warning alerts also empowered local governments to keep an eye on creeks and rivers that the storm could swell, just in time to evacuate people along high-risk areas before the worst of the storm hit.
The average Pinoy is mentally prepared to deal with calamity and is up-to-date with the latest gadgets — including smartphones, netbooks and those lovely, light little tablet PCs that are all the rage now — which, besides being picture pretty and very cool, can be used to ensure their safety and locate them when trouble hits.
Moreover, Juan and Juana dela Cruz are accomplished netizens with Filipinos making up the largest ethnic population on Facebook and other online social networks. The Pinoy can Skype and video-chat as well as (or even better than) most other netizens and the number of Filipinos gathering and sharing the freshest news with each other online through media portals and websites like Twitter are increasing by the day. Not to mention the fact that the Philippines still reigns supreme as the SMS capital of the world.
The latest storm warnings from Pag-asa and online international storm-watching agencies go viral online and over the digital grapevine in seconds, especially when a strong typhoon is about to hit. Once these storm signals are sent, the community that is the PH online goes right to work tracking it from low-pressure area to full-on gale, advising kith and kin in areas that may be affected to batten down the hatches, lay aside supplies and evacuate if needed.
When floods hit and assistance is required, Filipinos show the bayanihan spirit by marking these places on Google Maps to provide a quick reference guide for rescue teams and first responders to use, as well as alert the authority, including news outlets that can carry such stories far and wide. Of course, caution is still a byword: Netizens should always make it a point to double-check the information they receive just as they would “IRL (in real life),” as they say in chat-rooms.
Citizen journalists now come to the fore, bringing still and video footage shot with their camera phones and reports gathered from their home communities to the nation and to the media in seconds – filling in the information gaps that would otherwise cause delays in government and community action. Students and teachers pass on news about school suspensions in seconds via SMS, easing traffic congestion along routes to their schools, ensuring clear roads that will facilitate relief and rescue operations that may be needed.
Online and over the impressive wireless communications infrastructure built by the country’s telecommunications industry players, Filipinos share life-saving information with each other in a country where government response has, until lately, been slow to nil. The government is catching on, though, with provincial and national meteorological, geophysical, seismological, disaster mitigation and response agencies fully online and determined to improve their response times with each storm and tremor that hits these 7,107 islands we call home.
Perhaps the only drawback of this digital, virtual web of phones, computers and websites is that the whole kit and caboodle requires electricity to work at all – via batteries and direct current. Most laptops now have batteries that can last up to eight or more hours if the power is used judiciously and most phones that can go for two days to three days on a single charge if its owner sticks to SMS and limits voice calls and web-surfing.
These machines cannot work while wet: A wet phone will need to be turned off and taken apart, and its battery and other removable parts must be dried first before it can be used again. A wet laptop or desktop computer will short circuit and is a shock hazard if it is immersed in water while turned on. Power surges and outages that accompany most calamities – storms, flooding, earthquakes – are also likely to destroy most electronic gear that may be plugged directly into an electrical socket when the surges hit.
The worst calamities may also last longer than most mobile devices can store power. The workaround Filipinos found during the toughest times of the five days Ondoy raged was to synchronize watches, institute a “check-in” system by turning off their laptops and mobile handsets when not in use and turning them on again at appointed times set with the people with whom they kept in touch.
The best way to ensure that the devices that can save one’s life and pinpoint one’s location will be useful when they are needed most is to ensure that they are kept dry and in good working order. Having stand-by power supplies, such as solar chargers and battery adapters, is as vital as ensuring that each home has within easy reach water-tight and air-tight bug-out kits stocked with dehydrated food packs, first aid supplies, vital medicines, toiletries, spare batteries, flashlights blankets and clothing. Even with Pinoys’ tech treasures, disaster-preparedness is a plus.