Twilio powers SMS-based emergency response system for the developing world

SMS may not be sexy, but when you're in need of an emergency service and it's the only communication channel of choice, it sure is welcome.

emergency response alarm critical
Credit: Shutterstock

My posts often reflect on the use of the latest, greatest technologies and applications. But sometimes old technology can be applied to a problem to deliver far more important things than a laundry pickup service or home-delivered gourmet food.

And so it is with Beacon, an awesome little service that I discovered when visiting my friends at Twilio. For those who don't know, Twilio is a developer's communication platform. The traditional communication methodologies (voice, SMS, video, IM) are offered on the Twilio platform so that application developers can gain easy access to global communication services. Twilio is a perfect example of a vendor doing all the heavy lifting in a specific area for developers.

Anyway, back to Beacon. Beacon is an SMS-based emergency medical dispatching software created by Trek Medics International and designed specifically for communities where consistent ambulance response is not available (think the developing world or in a disaster zone). By relaying SMS from the scene of an emergency to trained responders throughout the community, the software enables the nearest available emergency care providers to locate, treat, and transport emergency victims to local hospitals.

Let's think about the use case for a solution like Beacon. Right now there are 4.5 billion mobile phone subscribers in the developing world who have no way to call for help in the event of an emergency using a number like 9-1-1. Yet, according to the World Bank, "Nowhere is the demand for efficient communication and rapid transportation more critical than in emergency medical care." That's a serious disconnect with a nice little technology solution.

Beacon mimics dispatching technology used in developed countries, yet utilizes an emphasis on over-the-top technologies to offer a cost-effective solution that's both scalable and sustainable for resource-limited health systems. Think a lightweight emergency response system without the need for heavy IT lifting or data connectivity.

Trek Medics spends its time working on medical systems in developing countries. In these countries, it is estimated that up to 45% of all deaths could potentially be addressed by basic emergency medical systems. True, hospitals and the availability of ambulances is a big part of that, but something as simple as communication channels can factor in as well.

"Nowhere is the demand for efficient communication and rapid transportation more critical than in emergency medical care. The best teams equipped with state-of-the-art technology and supplies will be wasted if they cannot be reached quickly or if they have no contact with the hospitals where patients are to be taken," said the World Bank Disease Control Priorities Project report.

Estimates are rough but suggest that around 5 billion people in developing countries carry mobile phones but have no access to a local emergency call system. Trek is trying to close this loop by training local community members in first aid, making sure there is access to transportation, and registering their phones with the Beacon system. Through Beacon, requests for emergency assistance are relayed to all trained local responders via text message, enabling them to respond to the scene of the emergency, provide care, and transport patients to local healthcare facilities. Trek launched a pilot program in the Dominican Republic in 2014 and more recently in Tanzania, and hopes to broaden the service over time.

Sometimes the coolest technology stories are the most simple.

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