Do You HEAR Me? New film looks at voice-based emergency communications

Phoning each other during personal or shared emergencies is one of the commonest human impulses. Until recently, technology and costs stood in the way. No longer.

We now have practically all grown-ups (and some young people too) in many Asian countries carrying around phones or having easy, regular access to them. For example, Sri Lanka’s tele-density now stands at 106.1 phones 100 people (2011 figures).

What does this mean in times of crisis caused by disasters or other calamities? This is explored in a short video I just made for LIRNEasia:


With the spread of affordable telecom services, most Asians now use their own phones to stay connected. Can talking on the phone help those responding to emergencies to be better organised? How can voice be used more efficiently in alerting and reporting about disasters? Where can computer technology make a difference in crisis management?

These questions were investigated in an action research project by LIRNEasia in partnership with Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation. Experimenting with Sahana disaster management software and Freedom Fone interactive voice response system, it probed how voice-based reporting can fit into globally accepted standards for sharing emergency data. It found that while the technology isn’t perfect yet, there is much potential.

Produced by TVE Asia Pacific for LIRNEasia with funding support from Humanitarian Innovation Fund in the UK.

Asian Tsunami+5: Revisiting survivor Heshani Hewavitharana of Sri Lanka…

Heshani in Feb 2005: Creative and reflective - Photo courtesy TVEAP

Heshani Madushika Hewavitharana, 13, was an eager student in school who also excelled in creative writing, in which she’d won certificates and awards. All of these, along with her school books and everything else her family owned, was lost in the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004. Their beach front house, in Suduwella in Sri Lanka’s southern district of Matara, was badly damaged. They escaped with their lives — and were among the luckier ones.

When we found Heshani and family a few weeks after the tragedy, they were taking refuge in a friend’s house. Her fisherman father could not immediately return to his work without his boat and gear, also washed away by the waves. The family was living on the mother’s meagre income from spinning coir ropes.

Despite their plight, Heshani and family agreed to participate in the Children of Tsunami media project, where local film crews in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand tracked how eight survivor families were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after the Asian tsunami disaster.

We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in these worst affected countries for one year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

Watch Heshani’s first monthly video update, February 2005:

Not all our participating families recovered from the tsunami’s mighty blow within one year, but we ran out of money and had to stop capturing their stories by the end of 2005, which I called Asia’s longest year. In a goodbye tribute to the courage and resilience of these families, I wrote in December 2005: “Our journey with the eight families ends with the first anniversary. We know their own journeys to recovery are far from finished. We can only wish them well.

Heshani in Nov 2009 - Courtesy Xinhua

Since then, I have often wondered how the eight children were faring. (In March 2007, it suddenly became seven when the Theeban, the boy in Sri Lanka’s east whose story we tracked, was brutally murdered.) However, I have resisted the temptation to revisit the children as I felt we had been intrusive enough already during that first difficult year after the tsunami. They must now be allowed to continue their lives in private.

Yet, I was intrigued by a recent report where two correspondents working for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Chen Zhanjie and Liu Yongqiu, tracked down Heshani and family. They wrote a story on Xinhua’s website for the Universal Children’s Day in November which focused attention on the protection and welfare of children. Heshani is now 17, and her younger sister Dimalka, 12. Already having passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam, Heshani is now preparing for her Advanced Level exam slated for August 2010.

While Dimalka aspires to be a doctor, Heshani wants to become a banker. Their father believes the tragedy has added a new dimension to the girls’ lives: “They have leant their responsibilities from the tsunami. Now the two girls have no fears.”

Read the full story on Xinhua website: From tsunami to trauma to trek ahead