Geo-Targeted Texting An Early-Warning System For Africa?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Technology that has been used until now to bombard European mall shoppers with coupons via text messages, could be rolled out this year in Kenya as an early-warning system to save lives, AFP reports in Inquirer.net.

Developed by Spanish mobile company Nvia, the technology will send text messages to Africans alerting them about natural and other disasters.

The text messages will be free for the population, said Alberto Perez, Nvia’s Africa manager based in Johannesburg, in an AFP interview. But someone has to pay for them. Nvia declined to say exactly who that will be, AFP reports.

Nvia developed the technology for the Gooard project based on geo-targeted texting alerts that send text messages to a specific geographical area.

A network of satellites and weather stations will detect the threat and send a text to villagers — regardless of how remote they are — within 15 minutes, hopefully allowing time for evacuation, the report said.

“The technology is able to identify all the active cellphones in a certain area, such as a shopping mall, a village, or a park, and send messages straight to the terminal without any previous subscription,” Perez said. “With the same system, we can also send vital information to people about natural disasters that can save their lives and minimize damages”

Mobile phone penetration is around 63 percent in Africa — and higher in South Africa, according to International Communications Union (ITU) estimates. Even in remote parts of Africa, mobile phone communications can reach areas other systems can’t reach, AFP reports.

“In Africa, especially in poor settlements, the population has limited access to Internet, radio or TV, but everybody has a mobile phone,” Perez said. “That’s why the platform can be so useful in the continent.”

After years of research, the platform is fully operational in Europe and is expected to be rolled out in Kenya by the end of 2014, Perez said. It is expected to work in partnership with local mobile networks such as Airtel, Vodafone, Orange, MTN and Cell-C.

Perez declined to say how much it could cost for governments or who would pay for it.

“It is an expensive service, but governments know that it can be vital for its population, and it can also save a lot of money in emergency relief,” he said.

South Africa’s environmental affairs department and the national secret services agency have shown interest in the project, and Nvia is preparing to make a formal presentation to the government, Perez said.

Natural disasters in Africa caused $803 million in damage and affected around 38 million people in 2012, according to Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain Annual Disaster Statistical Review, AFP reports.