Ericsson recently marked the 20th anniversary of its employee volunteer disaster relief programme, set up to provide connectivity to humanitarian workers in disaster areas.
We spoke to Heather Johnson, VP for sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson, to discuss the programme’s history and how advances in technology have enabled more effective disaster response in emerging markets. There is also a short video about the Ericsson Response programme at the end of the article.
How did the programme start, and how has it evolved to the point we’re at today?
The year 2000 was definitely not the digital broadband age we’re in now, but even then – twenty years ago – a group of Ericsson employees understood the power that the technology could deliver in disaster response, even if at that time the main intervention available was voice. In addition to this understanding, they were also able to reach out to UN partners. For us, the UN has been an important and relevant partner - Ericsson is a company with 100,000 people serving 180 markets, so a partner with that kind of scale that can help us to amplify the impact that we make.
In the wake of a disaster, getting communications up and running is now effectively the top priority as it provides a bedrock for coordinating other priorities, such as food and medicine. How has the prioritisation of communications evolved since the programme started?
I think it’s largely due to the criticality of communication networks in society generally; when the programme started, the primary effort was for humanitarian relief works and their efforts, which is an essential component of the response on the ground. What has evolved over these two decades is that now, every person and most sectors of society really embrace communications technology – it’s woven into the fabric of society. People really miss the ability to communicate in their daily lives; being totally cut off after a natural disaster such as an earthquake or typhoon creates devastation across the board. Being able to connect and run logistics is crucial, whether its from the perspective of humanitarian workers getting real-time data about what is needed and where, or from the human perspective, being able to let family and friends know that you’re OK. It’s an evolution of how important communication is in today’s society.
How has the increasingly sophisticated technology available allowed for better-coordinated responses - not just between the volunteer team, but also perhaps with input from civilians once services are up and running?
Ericsson response volunteers go on secondments to the UN when countries request assistance with a natural disaster. We have nearly 60 missions across geographies; last year a prominent example was Cyclone Ida in Mozambique. We go together and work with partners such as the World Food Programme, which has the remit over the emergency telecom cluster. We’re a vital technology partner to that effort – it’s about setting up connectivity and communication hubs, as well as ensuring that municipal services such as hospitals or airports have the immediate coverage they require. We also put together community hub spaces so that the affected population of the disaster has access to connectivity.
After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, one of the UN members said that they’d never seen the logistics and capabilities enabled with this effort, to the extent that their only comparable reference point was a military operation. It was such a well-organised response from a technology perspective – deliveries can be made more effectively if we understand which remote parts of a particular geography require assistance. Having the real time data to understand which interventions have to be made really helps the response.
We’re very early in – between 48 and 72 hours after a disaster strikes - and there are a multitude of NGOs on the ground that we need to serve. In Mozambique last year, there was an organisation called World Central Kitchen that worked to deliver food and meals - by virtue of the communications capabilities, they were able to reach tens of thousands of people requiring food. For an organisation like Doctors Without Borders, whether it’s a cholera treatment facility or an outbreak such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we’re able to have real time data collection to collate information around the disease and amplify practical advice to help stop the spread.
With that in mind, are elements of disaster response useful during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic in terms of controlling outbreaks or preventing spread?
The Ebola response was a medical emergency - what was different there was that they were setting up treatment centres, which is still a ‘hub’ built for a specific purpose that needs connectivity. In that instance, we were able to help keep medical staff connected to the outside world but also connect patients – people were very isolated within these units.
What’s interesting about the response to Covid-19 is that while it’s a totally different situation, it still highlights the importance of connectivity – whether it’s working productively from home or online learning, parts of the world have been able to adapt very quickly to a pretty severe lockdown situation. It’s possible – of course, there are many parts of the world that are not connected, but this shows the potential of connectivity – particularly in terms of something like sustainable development, which essentially dovetails with humanitarian response in terms of resilience building. From a national perspective, considering the infrastructure or the components of an agenda vital to sustainable development, it makes commercial sense to bring these responses together.
So it’s now commercially viable to pursue sustainability?
It will be fundamental for governments around the world to invest in ICT technologies for their development plans. This is something we’ve been working on with the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development with the ITU and UNESCO, and it’s looking not just at establishing national broadband plans, but connecting them to the broader development agenda. Ericsson is a strong proponent of the sustainable development goals, and we have decades of research around understanding our impact and the opportunities that we have with the infrastructure that we deliver. We know how this can transform multiple sectors of society, which is now likely to be more in focus than ever as we seek to “build back better” [in the aftermath of Covid-19]. Technology is going to play a key role in rebuilding resilient economies.
To find out more about Ericsson Response and view a longer version of the video go to www.ericsson.com/ericsson-response