Spring 2017

Saving lives with text messages

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index published by RMIT measures the extent of digital inclusion in Australia. The latest Index was published last month and it shows an increase, nationally, of 3.8 points over the last four years, from 52.7 in 2014 when data was first collected to 56.5 in 2017.

In line with this trend we have observed an increase in visitations to the St Vincent de Paul Society’s ‘Vinnies’ websites as well as donations made online over the same period. There is still much work to be done to close the gap between digitally included and excluded Australians and we will continue to monitor these developments and what impact they might have on the people the Society assists.

Internally we have taken advantage of new digital technologies to better collaborate and engage with the community. For instance videoconferencing is now widely used. It eliminates time-consuming and costly travel while enabling more productive meetings than the previous generation of telephone-based conferencing systems. With video-conferencing, attendees feel like they are in the same room, can share screens, annotate what’s on the screens and text-chat. These meetings can also be recorded and played back for participants who could not attend. The technology is mature, works on computers and smartphones, is easy to use and an average internet connection is sufficient. It’s usually free or only costs a fraction compared to traditional telephone-based conferencing systems.

We also use digital technologies to engage people and get them to become involved in the Society. As I was preparing this article an inspiring story came to mind.

In the May episode of People Fixing the World, published by the BBC, the reporter tells the story of an American paramedic who was able to use existing communication technologies to save lives in the Dominican Republic.

Jason Friesen was working as a translator for an NGO when he witnessed the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Watching the news on CNN during the weeks following, he realised he wanted to be involved in medical emergency relief missions. Jason decided to retrain as a paramedic. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck near Port au Prince on 12 January 2010 he was among the first medical emergency relief teams to be deployed to Haiti. While in Haiti, Friesen had a revelation.

‘During that experience it just became apparent to me that even if you had sent all the ambulances in the world to Haiti and given them advanced care paramedics with unlimited supplies of equipment materials, it wouldn’t have made a difference. And the big reason is that if you want to have the 24-7, on demand, door-to-door ambulance services that we enjoy in the wealthiest countries, you’d need at minimum two things: lots of money and very good roads everywhere.’ Since good roads and money for advanced paramedics are lacking in many countries, the challenge becomes how to build an emergency service when the two most critical things for a traditional ambulance service are not available.

Fortunately Friesen had another realisation. ‘I left Haiti about a week or so later and the one thing that stuck out to me was that everybody has phones. And here we are in the middle of one of the worst disasters in modern history and everybody is connected to a cell phone and they’re working. So communication isn’t the problem. Another thing is that in all of these countries people do eventually get to the hospital. They just don’t get there efficiently or necessarily as soon as they should. So there must be a way to coordinate something out of all these raw materials.’AAA Friesen founded Trek Medics, and in 2013 it began operation in the small towns of Manzanillo and Guayubin in the Dominican Republic, the country next to Haiti. Guayubin is a poor rural community surrounded by farmland and banana plantations with rocky tracks more suited to goats than ambulances.

Before Trek Medics, if there were a medical emergency in Guayubin, someone would have to call the hospital directly and the hospital would, maybe, send a nurse and taxi to help.

Today if someone has an emergency in Guayubin, they call the local fire station and a text is sent out to everyone in the area to see: 1) who is available to help and, most importantly, 2) who’s the nearest to the emergency scene. The first insight Jason had for building his emergency response service was that it could rely entirely on volunteers.

Volunteers have one week of essential first-aid training. As paramedics Jason understood that the most important element of emergency service isn’t high tech equipment or even highly trained paramedics, but access to the patient. That’s why volunteers go straight to the scene on bikes. Trek Medics have also donated custom motorbikes with stretchers attached to get through those dirt paths.

Angela is one of the volunteers in Guayubin. She’s a preschool teacher and mom of a small child. In the past nine months there were 61 emergency calls in her area and she was able to intervene 20 times. She vividly remembers one of her interventions: when she arrived on the scene a small boy was choking on something stuck in his throat. His parents didn’t know what to do. She stuck her hand down his throat and got it out. She said he would have died if Trek Medics emergency system hadn’t been in place.

The second insight was to use communication technology better. Noticing that almost everyone has a mobile phone, Jason realised there was a way to crowdsource help.

By replicating the essential functions of a traditional dispatching system on a simple mobile phone, not necessarily a smartphone, Jason’s system is able to ‘coordinate, allocate and dispatch large numbers of resources simply through very basic text messages on any kind of mobile phone’. The cost of running this text-based emergency system is $500 per month, compared to the $10,000 of a traditional dispatcher alone used by ambulance services in developed countries.

It’s inspiring to see how Jason managed to crowdsource help by leveraging existing mobile communication technologies. The solution costs little to run, is simple to use, and empowers the community to make a real impact in saving lives. The upcoming National Congress is expected to gather hundreds of Vincentians from all over Australia.

I hope the two-and-a-half days will see opportunities to share initiatives and experiences similar to Jason’s in Guayubin. In a recent report, Google Australia found that 80 per cent of Australians have a mobile phone. I believe innovative solutions using mobile technologies could be developed to our organisation’s advantage too. As the Society’s National President, Graham West described it in the last issue of The Record: ‘We live in an extraordinary time; a time of great challenges and opportunities—social, environmental, technological. There are new ways people connect, relate and get involved’.


People fixing the world, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p052299k

Australian Digital Inclusion Index, https://digitalinclusionindex.org.au/

Video conference: https://zoom.us

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