After a natural disaster, mobile payments can speed the inflow of monetary aid
Mobile technology has evolved to the point where it is in almost everyone's pockets, and that can make a big difference in the event of natural disaster.
Japan's tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake and typhoon Haiyan, all of these major disasters that affected hundreds of thousands of lives. And in each of these, mobile devices have shown to be resilient tools in maintaining communications, allowing victims to share their experiences with the world.
How many times have we seen tweets coming from people's smartphones about breaking news about disasters? When we look at footage from Japan of the recent tsunami that hit it, we often look at footage taken and shared from a mobile device.
As most of us know by now, the Philippines was hit by what may be the strongest storm ever recorded to hit land. Called Haiyan, the typhoon ravaged the country's central islands, leaving thousands dead and many more injured and destroying the homes and livelihood of countless more. If you've seen footage and photos of the destruction in cities such as Tacloban, you can't help but realize that this was truly a tragedy of epic proportions.
As expected with a storm of this magnitude, much of the infrastructure in the hard-hit areas went down. While restoring electricity and landline communications have proven difficult and expensive due to damage to telephone poles and electrical towers, the country's major mobile carriers were able to restore mobile coverage just two days after the storm left.
Because of this, mobile has become a very important communications medium for these areas, allowing rescuers to coordinate efforts and news agencies to cover the aftermath of the disaster. But it could do more. Where banks and other financial institutions have been understandably unable to resume normal operations in the cities that got hit (in fact, many of them were still closed several weeks after the storm), mobile devices can fill the void of their absence and provide people with a much needed tool to access cash and aid.
And it's not only their bank accounts they can rely upon through mobile payments.
It is usually in humanity's darkest hours that we start seeing true acts of kindness and generosity. In the U.S. two young girls sold lemonade to help raise funds for typhoon victims. Offices from all over the world made monetary donations for their colleagues in the Philippines. Schools, local governments and other organizations from around the world chimed in to raise funds. People want to help in their own way, and when it comes to disasters like this, every little thing counts.
However, there is no single way to bring these funds to disaster-hit areas. Mobile payments make it easier for these people to send to send funds to a charitable organization such as UNICEF and the Red Cross. With the spread of mobile phones, sending funds through mobile payments can accelerate the in-flow of money that can be used to purchase relief goods for disaster victims.
While basic needs such as food, water, clothing and shelter should of course come first, access to money is also equally important as prices soar due to the scarcity of basic commodities. Fuel prices, for example, doubled as gas stations remained closed and fuel delivery trucks have been unable to bring much needed fuel because of flooded and blocked roads.
In a scenario like this, it becomes increasingly difficult for cash transactions to take place. In the absence of banks, people have started to grow short on funds. Through mobile payments, friends and family of victims can send funds through mobile. And mobile payments can help supplement cash, by giving people a means to transfer funds even when banks and physical cash become inaccessible.
The mobile payments system doesn't have to be in the form of a complex app. Shortly after the disaster, the first thing financial institutions were able to restore was the city's ATMs. A simple SMS with a redemption code that can be used to withdraw the funds from an ATM through a cardless transaction will suffice.
These payments solutions can easily be implemented by carriers as a permanent solution or as an emergency channel made especially for disasters such as this. In fact, they did just that using SMS short-codes to allow people to send donations through the network. However, these methods aren't as visible as they should be at the moment.
Carriers also have the unique position in having connections with other carriers from other countries. A method to connect these carriers to allow for funds to be transferred between their networks during times of need will allow the international community to send funds over easier.
In a world where mobile payments can be effectively implemented, disaster relief and response can be vastly improved by allowing individuals to send their aid more easily while providing victims more options for receiving funds. These options can mean a world of difference, offering hope even at the bleakest of circumstances.
In the same way that mobile has changed how we view disasters as they happen, mobile can also change the way we help the victims. There are many lessons to be learned from these disasters, and it's up to us to make changes to improve response and save more lives.