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News || Monday, 31 October 2011

UNESCO Uses Souktel Mobile Alerts System to Keep Gaza Schools and Students Safe

When violence erupts in Gaza, all of its citizens are affected--but it's those living along the Israeli-controlled border who are often the most vulnerable. In 2009, nearly 40 people were killed when shelling hit the border town of Jabaliya, striking a UN school in the vicinity. The school is just one of 13 operating in this dangerous Buffer Zone.

As in any emergency situation, the key to safety lies in fast and effective communication. With this in mind, UNESCO staff in Gaza recruited Souktel to create an SMS alert/survey system that warns parents and their children of any danger happening near local schools. The service forms a key part of UNESCO’s Crisis and Disaster Risk Reduction project, which aims to ensure that schools are secure community spaces.

"In conflict zones, when it's not safe to leave your house to get information, mobile phones can bridge the gap and keep everyone connected," says Souktel co-founder Jacob Korenblum. "This basic technology allows aid workers, educators and local families to stay in contact at all times."

Here’s how it works: At each school, principals and teachers are given password-protected access to a web interface, where they can send SMS alerts to all parents’ mobile phones. In an emergency, they could write, "Attack near school today, please keep your children at home." Once the violence has ended, another message could go out saying, "Shelling has stopped; please come to school this morning."

Of course, Internet can be unreliable in times of crisis, which is why the system can also be managed through a handful of code-locked mobile phones. In this case, a teacher might unlock the phone, access the appropriate student phone number list, type a message and hit "send".

So far, 29 schools have been targeted for this project, with more than 11,700 students benefitting from the service. To ensure that all school principals and teachers understand how to use the technology, Souktel led in-person training sessions in Gaza for UN school staff.

"It's the first time anything like this has been done in Gaza," says Bilal Hamaydah, a technical education consultant with UNESCO who has worked on this project since its inception. "I hope this system can better protect the students here and improve the emergency response in local schools — as long as it succeeds, it will make the entire community more engaged and responsible."

Read more about UNESCO's work to provide education in emergencies here.