This article was originally published in ThoughtWorks. It is republished here with permission.
Within a few days of Typhoon Yolanda’s collision with the Philippines, UNICEF organized a team to deploy RapidFTR (Family Tracing and Reunification system) as part of the Child Protection program’s efforts to speed up the process of identifying children separated from their primary caregivers and reuniting them with their families. The team included the Innovations in Emergency Lead from HQ in New York, Mac Glovinsky; RapidFTR Technical Project Coordinator based in the UNICEF Uganda office, Cary McCormick; and two employees of ThoughtWorks from India, Sri “Batman” Prasanna and Subhas Dandapani. ThoughtWorks has been supporting the development of RapidFTR for the past three years, and offered two of their colleagues with RapidFTR experience to the UNICEF emergency response as volunteers.
Not many of us are aware of the damages caused by the typhoon. To understand the impact of RapidFTR, first we must know a little about Typhoon Haiyan.
It started out as Tropical Depression with wind speeds of 48km/h on November 3 and then declared a “Super Typhoon” on November 7. On November 8 at 4:40 am, Typhoon Yolanda moved inland at Guiuan with a wind speed of 315km/h, making it the strongest typhoon ever recorded. Along with the wind came the rain and storm surge, in some places up to 13 feet. In Leyte Province, the water came 1.5km inside the city. The three natural forces, together, caused unspeakable damages to the island provinces of Visayas, Philippines.
The water washed away thousands of men, women, and children. The wind shattered glass, tore apart huge buildings, smashed vehicles, uprooted large trees, and snapped coconut trees. People lost their lives, loved ones, and livelihoods. All modes of communication were dead; there was no electricity. Airports and roads were damaged, which subsequently delayed the relief efforts. People were left on the streets looking for food and shelter. Curfew was imposed shortly after people looted shops for food, clothes, and medicines. (“Loot” is not the right word, when you haven’t had food or clean water for days you don’t think about morality or consequences and I certainly would have done the same if I were in their shoes.) Damages to the people and their livelihood we saw on the field were shocking, unbelievable, emotionally haunting.
RapidFTR, a volunteer-driven, open source technology, has a website describing its function in further detail. In the Philippines, RapidFTR’s mission was to find as many unaccompanied and separated children as possible in the disaster-affected region, collect their information, and send it to the appropriate people who can provide support. RapidFTR speeds up the process by providing the child protection specialists with a web application (deployed on the cloud as well as on netbooks for offline use) and the field workers with a mobile application, eliminating the previously used paper forms completely. Since we regularly sync the data between the cloud, netbooks and mobile, the child protection specialists can get the data within minutes (unlike collecting data with paper forms) and take immediate actions.
Initially, the humanitarian responders didn’t believe that there were many unaccompanied or separated children. However, there were 14 million people affected, 4 million people displaced, 5,982 reported dead, and 1,779 people missing. Claiming there weren’t many unaccompanied or separated children is ridiculous. Since collecting data was made easier through the mobile application, the social workers and the policewomen were able to expand their searches. They were able to find unaccompanied/separated children in places where the local officials believed that no such cases existed in their towns.
These children and their needs probably would have remained invisible if it hadn’t been for the work of these social workers, policewomen, as well as RapidFTR. To the officials, this came as a shock and surprise, but it showed the true potential of the application; without hesitation, they started taking actions to support these children. There’s a team of government officials on the ground here visiting every child on the records we have and supporting them. This wouldn’t be possible if they were still using paper forms (which of course in some places they used, and it did not go well as they expected).
The deployment was physically demanding and mentally exhausting. The children we met and their stories got everyone of us on the field. What pulled us together and kept us going were the people we were working with. They lost everything they had, but they were still out in the field helping others. A policewoman, for example, while driving through her town with a big smile pointed at an empty plot and said “That’s my house.” A social worker who lost her grandson had been working without a break since the typhoon, while another had lost her daughter. Everyone had their own tragic stories but kept going because they wanted to save and help millions of others.
When we found more and more children, I did not know how to react. Should I be happy that we found so many children; or should I be sad that there are so many more children like these? Unfortunately, there are lot more of them out there, displaced, without their families, and living in horrible conditions.
To summarize my experience in one sentence: I am grateful for everything I have in my life, and I feel more human and alive for contributing to software products that serve humanity.