Bridging the Digital Divide: How GPS Watches Bring DRR to the Next Level

Blue Mosque and Cultural Center, Barangay Maharlika Village, Taguig City

Abdulaziz Hamsain, Kevin Dugan, Nur-Arif Paham, Mark Anthony Eugenio, & Rowena Guiamen

Wearable devices for solving real-world geolocation problems during and post disasters

Make wearable tracking devices accessible to the public.

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Future partners to spread watchMe; & Partners to develop watchMe’s technology

kevin.dugan@xtelent.net

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During the duration of the project, we had many individuals come up to us asking where they could buy watchme. Maybe down the line, we can help make wearable technologies accessible to the general public.

What I saw is that watchme increased the sense of community. Mothers who usually busy themselves with other things are becoming active in training sessions. They are now understanding how important it is to prepare for disasters.

When natural disasters strike, they leave a tremendous amount of suffering and damage in their wake. Among the more visible effects of disasters are the loss of lives, spread of epidemics, and destruction of infrastructure. The social and emotional impact of disasters cannot be minimized. When families go through such an experience, the overall well-being of society deteriorates.

One of the worst-case scenarios for families is to have a loved one missing. The distress becomes even greater when that someone is a child. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority indicate that almost one-third of the barangays affected by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 reported lost children, the majority of whom were aged 5-14 years old.

Enter Kevin Dugan and Aziz Hamsain, founders of Xtelent Outsourcing and their innovation, watchme. Watchme is a GPS watch that tracks the location of the individual wearing it in real-time through the software developed by Xtelent. As one of the projects supported by TUKLAS Innovation Labs, watchme aims to facilitate a faster and more effective rescue response during disasters.

PEACE OF MIND

Both men belong to communities that are particularly vulnerable to  the effects of disasters. Kevin grew up around the Agusan Marsh in Mindanao. A natural catch basin for excess water from the nearby mountains, the marsh no longer functions given the deforestation of the surrounding areas. The people in the area have had to contend with months of flooding, restricting productivity and economic development. Kevin remembers his family having to evacuate quickly when conflicts occur and when the waters rise.

Aziz, for his part, is  a member of the Tausug tribe. Economically marginalized, the many of the Tausug have had to leave their traditional domains for other areas. Some of Aziz’s relatives were in Zamboanga during the 2013 siege; the traumatic experience led them to move to Leyte province, hoping to start their lives anew. Instead, they ended up in Tacloban during the very onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda. His family experienced nights full of worry as they waited for news on survivors.

In its most basic form, what watchme provides is peace of mind for families. Xtelent currently delivers IT solutions to clients in the Philippines and the Middle East, and this is how the GPS watch made its debut.

TESTING THE POTENTIAL

When the opportunity from TUKLAS came up, Kevin and Aziz knew that they had to go for it. They saw potential in their product and were interested in exploring its full potential in a somehow similar yet different context. With TUKLAS, the duo understood that their brightest ideas would be brought to a marginalized community vulnerable to disasters.

For their partner community, they chose Maharlika Village in Taguig, which has the largest Muslim population in Metro Manila. This is particularly dangerous because the  the barangay lies along the West Valley Fault.

According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), the 100-kilometer fault will eventually generate the ‘Big One’ earthquake sooner or later. Buildings will be destroyed, fires will start up, and tens of thousand lives will be lost – if Filipinos are caught unprepared for this eventuality. Kevin and Aziz hoped that watchme can instill a culture of disaster readiness in the barangay, making its people more resilient against such a threat down the line.

With the Blue Mosque in Taguig serving as a venue, Kevin and Aziz explained their project to parents and their children. In the end, a total of 11 children were selected to receive WatchMe units. They were asked to wear the watches every day, allowing developers to track their location. Monitoring the children allowed the innovators to see watchme’s potential in a disaster preparedness context.

THE LITTLE WATCH THAT COULD

The watch itself is something of a workhorse. Despite its small frame, the devices came jam-packed with features. Its associated software can track the wearer’s location every minute if so desired, with an accuracy guaranteed for up to 5 meters. In an emergency, the GPS watch can call important numbers inputted by developers—rescuers, parents, barangay officials. It also has a geo-fence feature which notified parents whenever their kids went out of the perimeters of a particular designated “safe area.”

Watchme is the sturdy and reliable engine that could. The battery lasts for as much as 3 to 5 days when regularly used and can be recharged through its USB port. When it comes to data protocols, the watch uses 2G networks instead of 3G or 4G. It allows watchme not only to save data but also to be a more effective tracker since the country is not yet fully covered by the newer data protocols.

PIVOTS AND LEARNING

One learning point was the importance of data privacy, given the sensitive information that the watches track. Under Philippine law, individuals and legal entities are entitled to protection of this fundamental human right. It requires that data subjects provide consent for all data collection, and that they should be informed of how their personal information will be processed and shared.

To address such concerns, Kevin and Aziz conducted workshops for kids and parents, where their rights to data privacy were explained. The duo also made sure that access to such data was limited to the concerned parents, barangay officials, and (for the duration of the TUKLAS project) Xtelent staff.

Analyzing the location data from the GPS watches, Kevin and Aziz found that two of the areas frequented by children is right on top of the earthquake faultline. With this kind of information available, LGUs can prioritize and targe its DRR efforts to better protect vulnerable sectors like school-aged children in the said area.

They were also pleasantly surprised that the watches were being used in other situations unrelated to DRR. Weng Giaman, a single mother whose son was a watchme recipient shared: “watchme was a big help to our family. It allowed me to monitor where he was at any given time and contact him when needed.”

DREAMING BIG

When asked how they plan to scale up their innovation, Kevin and Aziz hoped that to sell to both local government units (LGUs) and individual consumers.

“In addition to strengthening emergency rescue programs, we can help LGUs map out land using watchme’s GPS capabilities,” Kevin said. If successful, such efforts can also contribute to mainstreaming DRR into municipal land use plans.

“During the duration of the project, we  had many individuals come up to us asking where they could buy watchme. Maybe down the line, we can help make wearable technologies accessible to the general public,” Aziz added.

These are big dreams, but definitely doable; after all, the initial results are inspiring.

“What I saw is that watchme increased the sense of community in Maharlika Village,” Ate Weng shared. “Mothers who usually busy themselves with other things are becoming active in training sessions. They are now understanding how important it is to prepare for disasters.”

Bringing people together is particularly important in their barangay, a melting pot where various Muslim tribes struggle to find their place in the social fabric. Kevin believes that in a way, the watch has helped unite people around a common cause: that of creating a safer community.