(Future of Health) Asha Reunites Refugees Across The World

(Future of Health) Asha Reunites Refugees Across The World

As part of the Future of Health report published last week, we talked to the creators of a phone-based app which helps bring together families torn apart by disasters and conflict.

Jose Antonio Varas
  • 10 august 2010

PSFK Future of Health


As part of the Future of Health report published last week, we interviewed key innovators during our research to illuminate ideas and innovation developing in healthcare.

PSFK talked with the creators of ASHA a phone-based app that helps reunite families and loved ones torn apart by disasters and conflict, through simple relay-based networks using humans and cell phones to carry tiny packages of information. ASHA was created by Anders Højmose, Martina Pagura and Ulrik A. Hogrebe as part of a Graphical User Interface class at The Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID).

Tell us about the Asha project and any developments since its creation.

“Well in all it´s simplicity, ASHA is an iphone app that helps reunite families and loved ones torn apart by disasters and conflict. Quite simply, the app automatically sends and receives simple information (name, simple geo-location etc.) over bluetooth – and in this way, allows for rescue workers and refugees to collect names and locations of people as they move around independently of established communication infrastructure. Think of it as an ambient information collector- it just queries the surroundings for information – and if it finds some, it enters it into its memory and shares it the next time somebody else shows up with a ASHA equipped phone. In this way, you could be stuck in a refugee camp in one location, but that your relatives are OK and safe in another camp, because a rescue worker moving between camps has picked them up on his  phone. But there is a video that exemplifies all that much better.

However,what is smart about ASHA is that it is not “just an iphone” app that has little relevance outside of affluent societies (although you could imagine it being highly useful in for example the aftermath of 9/11 where people in NYC struggled to find their loved ones). Basically it uses relatively advanced but also relatively inexpensive technology (the iphone) to empower very low level but also very pervasive technology – i.e. basically every low-level Bluetooth enabled mobile phone out there. While these low-level phones are not advanced enough / have enough capacity to receive large amounts of data, they can transmit a simple “Hello, my name is so-and-so” Bluetooth beacon which can then be picked up by rescue workers or other deployed personnel who typically are the most mobile in case of an emergency. Rescue workers can sync their phones and in this way become living ad-hoc information carriers. We did some very conservative calculations and worked out that 50 ASHA apps in the field, picking up 13 names a day would give you roughly 4500 names  and locations of refugees in a week. Now imagine having hundreds and hundreds of rescue workers, NGO´s, doctors etc, like we saw in Haiti, all passing on information – that could give you unparalleled up-to-date information of where people are, plus loads of extra data like movement patterns etc. which could help faster relief, epidemic prevention and so on.”

We’re talking today because I want to understand trends at the intersection of health and technology. How your project is related with these concepts?

“Now paradoxically, this seems like such an easy solution that one wonders why its not already in place and ready to go. Of course the reality is, that no mobile phone has an emergency setting that triggers a “Hello, my name is” Bluetooth beacon. And to be honest, we knew this all along, while we were designing the app, but that was not really the point. You see, what ASHA reveals is the enormous life saving potential, that we all carry around with us in our pockets. Tapping into this when designing the next generation of phones or thinking about how we can upgrade existing ones, could unlock enormous benefits. It is almost unbelievable that phones do not have a standardized, robust, free, low-level emergency protocol – something that just says “hello I am here! Help me!”. Think of people trapped under rubble or mudslides, of refugees moving from country to country, of kidnap and slave trade victims. There are a 1000 uses for something at that level alone.

We believe that, in terms of global safety issues and particularly in the case of global health concerns, there is a gaping hole that could be filled with this kind of thinking. We see howapplications and technologies are being developed that monitor heartbeat, blood levels, exercise, diet and all sorts of things that we as westerners have every right to be worried about – don’t get us wrong.But it seems ironic that here we as westerners are walking around in these great big data bubbles, worrying whether we should have that dressing with our salad, and in the mean time the developing world are combating AIDS epidemics that threaten to wipe out generations, tuberculosis, malnutrition and a health system that is almost nonexistent + plus a bevy of much much worse epidemics that literally are just waiting to transfer into humans. And nobody seems to be designing for them, nobody seems to be interested in affording them the same level of data. Imagine what we could be doing, if we could just give people something as seemingly simple as an electronic medical journal that could follow the patient using the same low-tech principals that ASHA is built on. You could even use a system like ASHA to transmit a journal number along with a name, allowing UNICEF and other NGO´s to access centralized, up-to-date records from refugees and others outside the institutionalized healthcare systems – both to provide immediate relief for the patient but also to harvest data that could potentially have global benefits.”

As a focus to the project – we are looking to aid UNICEF and likeminded organizations with new ideas. UNICEF’s work involves remote health workers. How could your project or a similar one be developed to support such work?

“In conclusion, we believe that ASHA exemplifies allot of the principals, that we should be considering when designing for deployed healthcare or rescue workers. Firstly, it utilizes the flexibility and power of advanced technology to get the best out of low-level, but pervasive technology. We need to be thinking about what is already out there and how we access that. Secondly, our system tries to circumvent the need for functioning infrastructures and instead relies on very basic human interaction – theidea that humans and not cables carry information is in no way a new one and so, once again we should be looking at what behaviors arealready out there, instead of trying to disrupt peoples routines and to teach them something new, often when they are in the worst possible situations of their lives, hungry, afraid, sick, etc. We need to always ask ourselves what do people do naturally and how can we utilize that?

Thirdly and finally, we need to look at both low-level needs and high-level advantages. With ASHA we are addressing an immediate problem -a person has lost his loved ones and will be traumatized by that loss for ever, affecting his well-being as a person and as a citizen. At the same time, we are gathering data that can benefit the situation as a whole – and possibly make a dent into the suffering caused by epidemics, conflicts, disasters etc on a global scale.”


PSFK’s Future of Health Report details 15 trends that will impact health and wellness around the world. Simple advances such as off-the-grid energy and the introduction of gaming into healthcare service offerings sit alongside more future-forward developments such as bio-medical printing. The report includes concepts for UNICEF based on the trends provided by the world’s leading advertising and design agencies. It is our hope that this report will inspire your thinking and lead to services, applications and technologies which will allow for more available, quality healthcare.

PSFK presents the Future Of Health Report for UNICEF

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