Emergencies and the Internet

Recently we hosted our first Speaker Series event for 2017, Emergencies and the Internet.

The event was topical, drawing on experiences from the recent Kaikoura earthquake felt throughout most of the country on 14 November 2016. In the minutes following Kiwis jumped online for updates, to get in touch with family and to search for emergency response tips.

With the Internet becoming more and more relied on in the face of an emergency, we thought it was important to explore what this means - what is the Internet’s role in an emergency? What are the opportunities and challenges of going online to prepare for, or respond to, an emergency? What happens if the Internet goes down?

To answer these questions we brought in a panel of experts in emergency and disaster related roles:

  • Susie Ferguson, Presenter of Morning Report for Radio New Zealand

  • Andrew Bate, Humanitarian Technology Programme Manager - International Programmes for New Zealand Red Cross

  • Dan Neely, Community Resilience Manger for WREMO

  • Sara McBride, Information Management Team Leader for GeoNet

The event in summary:

  • Susie opened with her experience of reporting on emergencies and disasters over the years and how the Internet has impacted/enabled this.

  • Andrew spoke about how the Red Cross uses the Internet to respond to a range of emergencies both national and global.

  • Dan talked about how WREMO uses the Internet for community building, resilience, preparedness and education and the challenges and opportunities WREMO faces.

  • Sara discussed GeoNet's use of the Internet in providing key information on earthquakes and volcanoes, particularly centered around the November earthquakes affecting Kaikoura and Wellington.

The floor was opened up for audience discussions where we had questions such as:

  • How do we stay current when people continue to share old information online rather than the most recent?

  • Do you have any tips on sharing informative content such as emergency messages in an engaging and fun way?

  • How can communications about emergencies better cater to the deaf community?

Our office was full to capacity with a sell out crowd including Wellington City Council representatives, emergency services staff, telco staff and other business professionals. We also had more than 60 viewing parties on our live-stream including a team from Christchurch and members of the deaf community.

The full recording of Emergencies and the Internet is available here:



Haven't had a chance to watch this yet, but wondering if anyone mentioned that, in a disaster, communication on the ground is usually crucial  but also usually doesn't work. That's because a lot of the centralised infrastructure (e.g. telco celltowers, power systems, etc.) are damaged. After the 2011 Feb quake in Chch, my neighbourhood was without cell communication for a couple weeks because a collapsing fish-and-chip shop took out the local cell tower (and, very sadly, killed a couple people). For situations like this, there exists technology that allows cellphones to talk to each other directly, without the need of a cell tower. There are various projects working on this - the most mature I know is open source: the Serval Project, started by a couple Aussies who, I believe, had helped out on the ground following the devastating Haiti quake. You can install the Serval client ($0) on any Android phone, and it allows your phone to become part of a "self-organising mesh" of phones also running the Serval software. If you're within a few hundred meters of others running the software, you join their network and can call and text them - or any other phone within the mesh of connected phones! People can even literally tie a Serval-equipped phone to a kite or balloon or stick it up on a hill overlooking a disaster, and offer far greater mesh network reach. It could be the difference between survival and not for a great many people. Wouldn't it be great if everyone knew about this and simply had this software on their phones? Wouldn't it be great if Civil Defense encouraged people to install and test out this capability? I think so - the next big disaster in NZ could hit any day.