Urgent Calls for Action: How Technology Can Turn Cell Phones Into 9-1-1 Systems in Developing Countries

If we can crowdsource help for a ride to the airport, why not a desperately needed ride to a hospital in countries that have no emergency medical systems?
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Answer this: What's the dominant technology that has given rise to transportation's share of today's "sharing economy?"

Mobile phones. They're everywhere, even in the poorest of communities. And often with better reception than we have here at home.

If we can crowdsource help for a ride to the airport, why not a desperately needed ride to a hospital in countries that have no emergency medical systems?

Mobile phones can become the 9-1-1 system that poor countries don't have and desperately need.

The need is indeed desperate. We in the United States and other developed countries take emergency services for granted -- and sometimes grouse at ambulances arriving at the scene a few minutes later than we think they should. But imagine being in an automobile accident or going into labor -- with no way to call for help. That's what an estimated 80 percent of the world's population face every day.

Nevertheless, impoverished communities respond to emergencies the best way they can. The sick and injured are being transported on dilapidated roads to whatever clinic or hospital that exists in taxis, bicycles, trucks, even rickshaws. Sometimes there is a primitive notification system through whatever basic phone service exists in the country. Sometimes it's a cell phone call to your cousin who has a pickup truck, and you hope he's got his phone with him.

The time is ripe for the simplest of ideas to have the greatest global impact. The key to success that Uber and even earlier innovators crowdsourcing innovators like Craigslist and eBay excel at is leveraging available resources. In addition, they keep overhead low and barriers to entry lower. They develop a community of loyal independent contractors. And they coordinate users through their own devices, using third-party infrastructure.

That's also the prescription for developing reliable 9-1-1 systems in impoverished countries that don't have them. Cell phones abound. So do volunteers wanting to learn basic first aid who are able to make their mode of transportation available to the community. It's crowdsourcing at its best.

What's needed is a reliable way for patients to send out the word for help, and transporters to talk with medical personnel. That's where new technologies can fill the gap, and where the leaders in the field can teach other companies a lot.

Having spent many years living and working in ambulance services in both rich and poor countries, it was easy to see that the emergency response system and solutions used in San Diego wouldn't be easily replicated across the border in Tijuana -- much less in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Nonetheless, people were being regularly transported to the hospital whether or not there was a formal system, and often through unreliable, but surprisingly robust grassroots systems. Once it became evident that most U.S. solutions had little chance of becoming affordable in these countries -- let alone effective -- it didn't take long to conclude that crowdsourcing emergency medical care was the best way it would happen on a wide scale. More importantly, however, it was already being crowdsourced, albeit through inefficient phone trees, hit-or-miss taxi services, or even waving someone down from the side of the road.

The end result of this insight is a software like Beacon, designed specifically for communities that can't afford advanced "9-1-1" technologies. It's a simple text message-based dispatch software that leverages the informal emergency response systems already being used by training informal healthcare workers in basic emergency care, utilizing the vehicles that they're already driving. And just like Uber, AirBnB and eBay, among many others, this approach benefits from low overhead (no expensive ambulances or high-tech call centers to purchase and maintain) and lower barriers to entry (first aid training using cloth bandages and cardboard splints); it taps into loyal community groups for de facto independent contractors (community organizations and young adult volunteers); and it coordinates users through their own devices, using the information and communications infrastructure that already exists (over-the-top telecommunications software).

Such simple technology can create a community-based mesh of trained voluntary first responders in developing countries that can't afford the bells and whistles we use. This is a good thing, as more than 90 percent of the world's road-traffic fatalities occur in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. With the world's poorest countries devastated by extraordinarily high fatality rates from preventable causes like injuries and complicated childbirths, it's time to answer the call for help.