New technology helps aid effort in wake of tsunami disaster

PARIS (AFP) – New technology has played a major role in aiding the search and rescue of victims of the Asian tsunami disaster as well as raising funds for aid organisations.

Mobile phones, the Internet and electronic chips have all made it possible to quickly pass information between between rescuers and to rapidly pull in donations for relief aid.

In the immediate aftermath of the towering tsunami waves that have so far known to have taken some 145,000 lives, mobile phones enabled survivors to let friends and families know they were alive.

In the Czech Republic, the government sought the help of the country’s three mobile phone companies to send text messages to the phones of about 90 Czech tourists who remain unaccounted for in the stricken southern Asian areas.

The operators were establishing whether the phones were active when the wave struck, and whether they have since been reactivated elsewhere.

The move was “primarily aimed at individual tourists, with whom contact has so far proved impossible,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Pavel Svoboda.

Hardly had news of the catastrophe begun to circulate around the world, than the phones found a new role.

In Italy, which has one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world, operators made a single number available for donations and sent text or voice messages to their customers appealing to them to send one euro.

“A euro (1.35 dollars) is not very much, that’s true, but people are responding enthusiastically,” said a spokeswoman for Italy’s public broadcaster RAI, which is sponsoring the operation along with the private Mediaset network.

Quicker, more spontaneous and less costly than a bank transfer, the millions of small cash payments via mobile phones in Italy amounted to 14 million euros in the first five days after the disaster.

Similar operations were under way in France, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

In Germany, the organizers of New Year’s festivities at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin asked participants to send a text message that automatically transferred 2.65 euros (3.6 dollars) to the account of the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF .

The Internet, which has likewise been used to raise funds, has also helped tourists and locals who lost touch with their relatives after the giant waves struck a week ago to contact their loved ones.

Blogs, short for web logs, or online diaries, have been providing gripping eye-witness accounts of the catastrophe.

In the United States, which has as many as 5,000 of its nationals unaccounted for since the disaster, internet donations have reached 350 million dollars, according to Internet company Kintera.

Electronic chips are also playing a major role in the aid effort.

They are being used in Thailand to keep track of the bodies of those killed in the disaster, they help medics carry out telemedicine in remote areas, and they are used in alerting regions to the spread of epidemics in the wake of the floods.

But the use of technology in the wake of the waves also has its downsIde.

Spammers have been flooding email inboxes in Japan and the United States with fraudulent calls to donate money to help victims of the disaster.

Hoax emails have also been received by some British families telling them that their missing loved ones have been found dead.

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