A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Mobile Phones

A HELP! button for aid workers

If you are an aid worker and you have an iPhone you need the Safety Button Assault Alarm iPhone application. Although it is Billed by its makers, Sillens AB, as an assault alarm for women its good for a myriad of situations in which aid workers can suddenly find themselves. Whether it’s a simple traffic accident on a remote road or the sudden realization that your new ‘friend’ intends to kidnap you, the safety button can help.


The Safety Button application is extremely easy to use. First, install it on your iPhone and fill in the email, phone, and SMS details of a reliable colleague or your organization’s radio room. Safety Button can then be set to do any combination of the following:

  • text your position
  • email your position
  • make an emergency call
  • sound an alarm


When you find yourself in a situation of impending danger simply start Safety Button. Your location data will be sent to the Sillens AB servers in Sweden and updated every 20 seconds. As long as you keep the application running your position will be tracked.

At this point, if your fears turn out to be unfounded, you can simply turn off the application. No emergency messages will have been sent and you won’t have bothered anyone. However, if your instincts were right, simply press the big red button and Sillens’s servers will notify your contact.

You can buy Safety Button from the iTunes store for $2.99. The price includes three alerts. You can buy additional messages from the Sillens website.

Recharging electronics in emergencies

During last year’s fighting in eastern Chad some NGOs found themselves trapped in their compounds without power. Running their generators attracted unwanted attention so they quickly ran down the satellite phones and laptops that they depended upon for communications. Fortunately there are more and more devices out there that can help if you find yourself in a similar situation.

I’ll forego a round up of external battery packs for mobile phones and other gadgets. There are too many of them out there and they are all more or less the same. Instead we’ll look at some greener options.

Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies’ HydroPak is billed as a clean and quiet alternative to lead acid battery packs and portable generators this innovative device combines fuel cell technology with a water activated energy storage cartridge. Not only will this have more than enough power to recharge your mobile phone it should be able to recharge your Motorola radio or satellite phone as well. Their brochure has all the details. Estimated pricing is USD 650.00 for the unit and USD 37.00 per cartridge.

The Medis Xtreme Portable Fuel Cell Charger is another fuel cell device. Its much smaller than the HydroPak but still produces enough juice to recharge your smart phone up to four times. You just need to unwrap it, squeeze it, and plug it in. The Xtreme Emergency Kit is currently retailing for around USD 50.00.

Lenmar’s PowerPort Solar Charger was recently announced at CES and should be available soon. The charger fits most mobile phones and can be recharged by the sun or by connecting it to a USB power outlet. Lenmar claims it will recharge your phone up to five times before it needs to be recharged. No word on pricing yet.

Kenisis makes the K2, a solar and wind powered mobile phone charger. If mother nature isn’t co-operating it can also be charged from the mains.

Hankey makes a hand crank mobile phone battery charger that looks interesting. No need for sunshine, just turn the crank.

If you need to recharge a laptop or satellite phone Brunton makes SolarRolls. These are essentially flexible solar panels that can be rolled up when not in use. There are three models depending on your power needs. The largest will charge a laptop. Prices range from USD 300.00 to USD 650.00.

An alternative is PowerFilm’s Foldable Solar Chargers. The largest (PowerFilm F15-3600) produces 60 Watts, enough to recharge a laptop or satphone and it folds up to roughly the size of a two inch stack of printer paper. Prices seem to vary a lot so shop around. I’ve seen the F15-3600 going for as little as USD 1000.00 and as much as USD 1,500.00.

If you have a MacBook, MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air and deep pockets the Apple Ju!ce is worth a look. Its expensive but it comes with a free Element bag that’ll have you looking more like a stylish urban guerilla than an aid worker.

Some devices absolutely require conventional alkaline batteries. If you are using one of these you might want to take a look at Fuji’s new EnviroMAX line-up. These batteries are supposed to be landfill safe as they do not contain mercury, cadmium, nor PVC packaging.

Finally, if you are a DIY type or find yourself trapped in the middle of Chad with nothing but a soldering iron, some wires, and an Altoids tin you might want to watch Three Portable USB Battery Packs You Can Build.

Humanitarian Mapping on Mobile Phones?

Hmmm. This video looks interesting. It purports to be of an Android mobile phone application called MapMaker for creating maps in disaster zones. Here is what the person who posted the video on YouTube says about the application:

Map Maker is an Android application for creating maps in a disaster zone. It is designed to allow aid workers to quickly and easily create a map of the area they are working in. After a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake the landscape can change so fundamentally that existing maps are rendered out of date. Knowing things like which roads are passable, where field hospitals are and suitable aircraft landing areas makes it far easier to manage an emergency.

Unfortunately the video has no audio and there are very few details. If this turns out to be more than vapourware I'd like to see some additions to support NGO security. Labels and tags for minefields, no-go areas, checkpoints, safety hazards etc. would be very nice.

If the creator of this program is out there listening I'd love to beta test this!

In Case of Emergency - ICE

In Case of Emergency (ICE) is a program that encourages people to enter emergency contacts in their cell phone address book under the name "ICE". This enables first responders, (paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and of course NGO security officers) to quickly search an unresponsive victims phone for the ICE contact who can identify the victim, provide emergency medical information, and next of kin details.

Of course this is not a panacea. It comes with the usual caveat; you'll need to adapt the system to your local context and your organization's methodologies. For instance it might not be appropriate in Afghanistan where Taliban supporters have been known to search the phones of passers by for foreign names. However, with a little bit of adjustment you should be able to use this idea to help ensure the safety and security of your staff.

If you want additional videos like the one above W. David Stephenson has done a number of videos at least one of which I have used before. You can find out more at his website or at his YouTube channel. Don't be put off by the Homeland Security 2.0 label he uses. His short videos are intended help empower ordinary people during times of emergency or disaster.

Gadget Roundup

NGO security is really about people... but a few gadgets can't hurt either.

MOGO Wireless Signal Booster

We've all worked in areas where mobile phone coverage is spotty at best. MOGO Wireless has a wireless signal booster for mobile phones that claims to reduce dropped calls and boost signal strength. There is a home version that plugs into the USB port of your laptop and also a mobile version that plugs into the power port in your car. The only down side is it seems they only do 800/1900MHz so globe trotting aid workers might want to wait until other antennas are available.

ATP GPS Photo Finder

I've been experimenting with geotagging lately. Its very useful for keeping track of where you took your facility security, post-incident , and other photos. Most systems are still a little kludgey but a friend pointed me to the GPS Photo Finder. Simply carry it around while you take your pictures. Later, put your camera's memory card into the GPS Photo Finder and all the location data is merged with the digital photos. Your photos can then be used GPS compatible photo software or sites such as Google Maps and Flickr.

Solio Universal Solar Battery Charger

Better Energy Systems has introduced a couple of new models of their universal solar battery charger known as the Solio. I've used the original model for a couple of years. It comes in really handy for keeping your mobile phone and gadgets charged when you are working in areas without reliable electricity. All of the models are small enough to fit into your field bag. It only takes about four hours of tropical sun to charge fully... longer at more temperate latitudes.

The only thing I don't like about the Solio is having to carry all the little adaptors needed to support my various phones, iPods and other gadgets. Of course that's really not Solio's problem. I pray for the day when gadgets come with standardized ports.

The Economist on Tech, Response, and NGOs

The economist has an interesting article on how technology is changing the power dynamics between NGOs and their beneficiaries. There are even a couple of paragraphs covering concern about how mobile phones and similar technologies might impact on NGO security.

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