How a little app is making a huge difference in our Nepal earthquake response
08 Dec 2015 by Kamal Raj Sigdel, UNDP Nepal
On a misty May morning this year, we headed to Sindhupalchowk, one of the districts devastated by the April 25th Nepal Earthquake. We wove up serpentine roads, and past hamlets that had turned to rubble. Just two weeks had passed and we were to begin helping people here recover from the quake.
Behind the ruined towns, the Himalayas stood majestic, beauty beholding bereavement. People had built temporary shelters on the side of roads, children walked barefoot over the rubble, while adults attempted to salvage clothes, beds and furniture from broken homes. Many simply stood in groups, waiting for relief materials.
We reached the village of Irkhu after travelling for two hours. I was in a group of 50 people, including volunteers, who began working to safely demolish and remove debris from destroyed homes. Just as we were preparing for demolition at the top of Irkhu hill, the ground began to shake violently accompanied by deep rumbling, causing houses already damaged by the first quake to crumble before our eyes. There was sudden panic and everybody went on all fours. It was another big earthquake.
What followed was a terrifying scene: dozens of landslides cascading down the mountains, creating huge mushroom clouds of dust. It felt like the apocalypse, as if the world was soon going to end.
Children were crying and screaming and others rushed to get their family members to safety. Some of the workers in our team ran towards their homes while others stayed rooted to the spot, trying to make calls only to hear a busy tone. The UN volunteers were also trying to contact their families in vain.
I was recording a video when the quake struck. The shocks were so powerful that I was unable to even stand on my feet. It felt like I was standing on the surface of boiling water, with the entire mountain roiling under my feet. But in a matter of seconds, I put the camera back on and started recording.
We decided to halt the demolition and get back to Kathmandu as quickly as possible.
As we drove downhill, we were all silent. Thirty minutes later, we had to stop, as a part of the hill had collapsed. The road ahead was strewn with rocks, trees and earth, blocking our path home.
As we waited for the road to be cleared, the realisation that business as usual would not work sunk in. The mountainous topography of Nepal, scattered settlements, unique mudstone houses with heavy debris, and the absence of road networks complicated everything about the recovery process.
We realized we would need technology to try to help cope with the scale of the disaster.
The Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) in Nepal, stepped up to the plate.
Working with the UNDP team, the MIC developed and tested a smartphone-based debris management app in less than a week. Soon, UN volunteer engineers in the field were equipped with smart phones loaded with the app that harnessed cloud servers.
Now I watched, UNDP staff in the field do everything from registering of hundreds of workers in real-time, to logging exact GPS coordinates of damaged houses..
More importantly, as a promising prototype, the app offered a potential for online project management and payments for thousands of workers which promised to significantly reduce tedious paperwork and the associated delays.
Within the first three months, with the help of this app, UNDP assessed, demolished and removed debris from over 3,000 houses, employing over 3,500 local people and benefiting around 17,000 community members.
The Himalayan Times dubbed it “the world’s first debris management app.” For us at UNDP it was proof of how novel partnerships and innovation can make a huge impact and bring life back to normal faster than ever following a major disaster.
Watch this video on how the app has touched the lives of thousands in Nepal: