Agency calls for help from African mobile operators to help fight Ebola

How mobile operators can help fight the spread of Ebola - call to action for African mobile operators

A project established to provide life-saving information via SMS in the event of emergencies and disasters is calling for help from African operators to help implement its SMS-based service in countries affected, or likely to be affected, by Ebola.

TERA (Trilogy Emergency Relief Application) is a project promoted by the IFRC (Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) that aims to install systems within operators that are capable of sending location sensitive SMS messages.

It was initially installed in Sierra Leone two years ago to provide information and advice during a cholera outbreak. Recently, Airtel Sierra Leone has been sending more than two million text messages a month as part of an integrated Ebola information programme, providing advice on how to avoid catching the disease, how to recognise the symptoms and what to do if you think someone has caught Ebola.

Now TERA would like to expand the system to other countries  and has requested the support of operators to help implement the system.

The countries that TERA has requested support from are Benin, Togo, Ghana, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, and Burkina Faso.

TERA tells us: “To succeed, we need the urgent help of operators in those countries.  We also need help in effecting implementation of these systems. Time is of the essence.  The quicker we can implement, the more lives we can save and the more sure we can be of containing this epidemic.”

The Mobile Network is sharing TERA’s call for action and we are asking our readers to share this information, especially with any contacts within operators working in West Africa.

(The following information has been supplied by TERA.)

The TERA System
The TERA system allows Red Cross Red Crescent to send SMS text messages to people in defined geographic areas.  The operator simply draws a circle or a polygon onto a map on the graphical user interface and can then send a message to every live handset that is within that area.

It also uses message scanning to automatically respond to incoming messages. TERA looks for keywords (e.g. Cholera) in an incoming text and responds with a selected pre-set message. This gives the sender some immediate relevant information and lets him know that his message has been received. (More on key TERA features.)


TERA operator interface

How TERA Works
The TERA system is fitted to a host mobile network.  It is designed as a carrier grade system running on twin servers and uses an Oracle data base.  The TERA code has been independently verified.

It connects to the network at two points.

One point is a CDR output from the switch.   This is used by the system to register which handsets are actually active.   It also shows the system which cell sites each active number is typically connected to, allowing for targeted SMS messages to be sent.   The other point is a typical SMS gateway contained within the system.   An existing SMS gateway can be used if preferred.

The TERA system consists of two parts: the “engine”, which is locally connected to the mobile network, and the web based user interface which can be located anywhere as long as there is internet connectivity. The user interface can be used to interact with a number of engines. This allows a truly global deployment with regional centres staffed by fully trained operatives.

TERA Architecture

TERA architecture

The Role of Mobile Operators
To succeed, the IFRC needs the help of mobile operators in each country. This means installing the TERA system into the network. As mentioned earlier this effectively means the connection of a passive listening connection to keep the system subscriber aware together with a standard type of SMS gateway.

This system then needs to be loaded with information on the cells sites through the country. This is typically done by the operator’s engineers with guidance from an IFRC team of specialists. At the same time blacklists can be implemented together with a throttle profile for the system. These can be adjusted from time to time if required.

The system is tested and then, unless and until a disaster occurs, is only used periodically for routine maintenance and testing. The relationship with the IFRC is that of hosting a system for their use.

In the event of a disaster, the IFRC asks operators to donate a certain number of SMS messages.

What is in it for Operators?

Implementing TERA will provide a highly valuable donation to the aid effort. It costs very little to the operator and leverages the core assets of the network. It is clearly the right thing to do from a moral point of view.

Many take the few that working with TERA is more of a responsibility than a choice. There is deep satisfaction to be gained from taking part in a major project that will transform the future prospects for millions of people over the next few years.

However there are also significant commercial benefits for the operator. The operation of TERA will help him to protect his own customer base and revenue stream at a time of disaster. Fewer people will be killed and the effects on survivors will be reduced, speeding their recovery and return to full economic activity and phone usage.

There is also a highly positive “feel good factor” for the operator staff. They realise that they are working for a company that is not simply a money making machine but which is also a positive force for good in their community. This translates into improved staff morale, retention and positive “word of mouth” within the recruitment pool. Customers also respond well to the knowledge that their operator is working with the largest aid organisation in the world to help to protect them.

To take part, get in touch with Robin Burton at the IFRC.

Further link: more information on TERA.

(NOTE: The TERA software was developed by Salamanca Software.  It is provided to IFRC as a free licence so long as the software is used for humanitarian aid.)