Internet Technologies and Natural Disaster Management: Google Loon

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IT has become one of the main weapons against natural disasters, both as prevention and recovery tool.

Discover some of the Hi-Tech projects used during the recent typhoon in the Philippines and the new ones to come, such as Google Loon

In the recent years internet technology is helping substantially in resolving the global problems such as illiteracy, education and diseases prevention, but also during the political crises (the recent Arab Spring for example). Its role has also become crucial in disaster response, whether as communication tool (especially through the social media), people locator or internet provider.

Typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines on November 7, 2013 (Source Wikipedia)
Typhoon Haiyan approaching the Philippines on November 7, 2013 (Source Wikipedia)

The latest example can be found in the Philippines, during the super typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded that stroked this Pacific island with gusts of up to 200mph (320km/h). The central islands were hit mostly: Leyte, Samar and Cebu and the city of Tacloban was one of the most devastated. The aftermath was tragical: 5000 victims, more than 20.000  injured, 4 million displaced and still 1.600 people are missing. The technology response was immediate: some of the most used tools in the hours following the disaster were missing people finders, for example Google Person finder, that matches the name and available details of the person you are looking for with the data already in the system, or the survivors list put up by The Phillipines Red Cross and the Sunstar.com.ph.

 

There was also a call to the tech community to start developing projects that can help the injured people: world’s largest social network for developers, Geeklist, is building a series of applications to meet the  biggest technological needs after the natural calamities. These are the 5 projects they are working on:

  • Relief.io, a site where anyone can post if they need help or can provide help based on location. A BETA version is now live
  • Sagip.me (Sagip in Filipino means rescue) a site to consolidate requests for help from volunteers. Another prototype, for now
  • Getting online any information transmitted from blackout areas via Ham radios and the Philippine Amateur Radio Association (PARA).
  • Building a site to share the stories of children affected by the storm, and a Facebook app to collect donations and share the effort with friends.
  • A traffic app to help victims find the right route to safety, using data from around the Internet like what’s being compiled here.

 

Internet inside the Balloon: Google aims to connect the Earth

One of the main motivators for Google when starting its latest rather extravagant project Loon, was to help people back on line in case of natural disasters. So let’s try to understand how Loon functions and how it can help connect the Earth. According to the latest statistics, 61 % of global population still doesn’t have access to broadband connection[1], but very soon Internet could reach every corner of the Earth, no matter how remote. The new audacious yet simple plan by Google is to connect the entire world with balloons, floating on the edge of space beaming down to Earth the Wi-Fi signal – it sounds so crazy that it might actually work. The technology behind the Loon project is very simple: high-altitude polyethylene balloons carry the solar panels that generate the power supply for the transmitter that sends the signal to the ground, where the antennas, 100 km apart from each other, bounce the signal back to the balloons. So if you’re within the antennas range you’re online. This network of balloons will float in the stratosphere using the wind currents at about 20 km of altitude, but it can also be maneuvered from the ground in order to change direction or land safely.

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Project Loon (Images via gizmag.com)

Google Loon project was officially piloted on 16 June 2013 in New Zealand, when 30 balloons were launched and some 50 test pilots in Christchurch and the Canterbury Region tested connections. The next step will be sending 300 balloons around the world at the 40th parallel south that would cover New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.

The access to technology, especially mobile, can be crucial aid in surviving a natural disaster, whether it is just one SMS or a Tweet with a distress call; lack of access to information and technology is influencing gravely one’s ability to prepare for, survive and recover from disasters, according to the 2013 world disasters report[2]. Projects like Loon can allow early warnings and information that can save numerous lives, especially in the disaster-prone or remote areas. The technology needs to learn from the tragedies so that they can be avoided in the future.

If you want to know more about the Google Loon project check out our latest infographics:

google-loon-project-infographic