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Which Mobile Phones Work Best for Disaster Responders and Humanitarian Aid Field Teams?

By Guest Writer on March 5, 2018

rugged mobile phones

During my time working with a well-known Mobile Industry Development group, one request which would turn up on a regular basis in my in-box was for recommendations for (or the donation of) mobile phones for disaster responders and humanitarian aid field workers.

The majority of these requests represented a genuine desire for a mobile phone which could have some if not all the following capabilities;

  1. Destruction proof – water, fire, drop, apocalypse, etc.
  2. Battery life – ideally approaching infinity (like the often-quoted original Nokia 3310)
  3. Achieve reception in remote corners of subterranean mountain caves.
  4. Run all the M4D apps built since the advent of J2ME.
  5. Big screen, mega-pix camera, and other features pertaining to the latest and greatest generic fruit based phone.
  6. All for less than $100 per unit

Mobile Phone Options for Aid Workers

My responses to the request for mobile phone recommendations that could benefit disaster responders and humanitarian aid field workers were typically (in relation to the list above);

1. Protection options;

  • $ – Zip lock bag and bubble wrap
  • $$ – Industrial case and screen protector
  • $$$ – Ruggedized phone rated for IP67+

2. Power options;

  • $ – Vehicle 12v socket charger.
  • $$ – Extra battery for phone (if it has a removable battery – getting rare) or an external battery pack.
  • $$$ – Portable renewables e.g. solar panels, micro wind turbine, fuel cell, etc. remember the sun doesn’t always shine, wind doesn’t always blow and hydrogen canisters can’t be transported on an aircraft…

3. Communication options;

  • $ – long stick and duct tape or extending selfie stick, for waving your phone in the air, in the hope of finding the last vestiges of a mobile signal.
  • $$ – Dual SIM phone, this means you have access to more than one mobile network which potentially increases your coverage but at the cost of having more than one mobile plan. If you’re working in a specific region it might be worth checking national operator’s coverage maps or the GSMA maps, to determine which SIMs would be best.
  • $$$ – satellite phones, smartphone add-ons and SMS tracking devices, expensive to buy, and to run, and by no-means fool proof i.e. storms, jungle canopy, buildings, etc. will all affect their capability to make and receive calls. Also check the Satellite providers cover the region you work in.

4. Platform options;

  • $ – $$$ Android – provides a plethora of phones of all shapes, sizes and cost, probably hosts more M4D apps than any other platform but watch out for version support.
  • $$ – $$$+ iOS – limited range but easier to keep the OS up-to-date. Fewer M4D specific apps but probably more robust due to Apple’s app store acceptance programme.
  • Others include Windows Mobile (all but dead), Symbian (antiquated), feature phones (surprisingly tenacious – see Nokia 3310 re-launch).

5. Be careful what you ask for, options;

  • Screen, the larger the screen size the more power it will consume, so unless you need a larger screen for a particular use case, go for something under 5”.
  • Camera, most current smartphone cameras are adequate for snaps, the better cameras reside in the uber-expensive end of the range and honestly if you need that level of quality consider getting a separate travel camera which the combined cost of with a mid-range handset is still lower than the Pixel 2 and iPhone X’s of this world.
  • Chipsets, incredibly confusing even for those with a background in computing/electronics, in very simplistic terms the more processing cores you have, the more apps you can run simultaneously (a smartphone needs a minimum of 2 cores), the memory (RAM) dictates how quickly you can switch between apps and storage determines how many apps, photos, videos, music, data you can have on the phone at any point in time. If you need to use very graphic intensive apps you may also want a phone with a dedicated graphics unit (GPU).Apple use their own chipsets and consequently as they own everything from the phone to the OS, all current iPhones will be able to run all apps available in the app store. Android is more diverse although it is dominated by the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, with the 200, 400, 600 and 800 series, for the purposes outlined above, I would look at phones based on the 400 and 600 series chipsets, 200 if cost is the main concern and 800 if you really need a big bump in processing power and/or it needs as much global roaming cover as possible.

6. $100 per unit options

  • Unit cost in this context is largely meaningless, what matters is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), if you’re buying phones for a team/company/worker group then you have to factor in sourcing, configuration, distribution, mobile plans, user support, etc.

Which Mobile Phones Are Best for Aid Workers?

OK, so you still haven’t answered the question which mobile phone should I get? That’s because there isn’t one answer, for two reasons everyone/organization has different criteria they need to fulfill, second the potential phone models available change on a daily basis and the phone you want will definitely be launched next month, or the month after…

So how about some suggestions?

  1. $ – At the time of writing I would suggest a Nokia (HMD) 2, great battery life, low cost but frustratingly I’ve been unable to get hold of one to test to-date. Which highlights another issue which is although a phone has been announced it may take months to become available in the geography you need it.
  2. $$ – I used to avoid Motorola phones like the veritable plague as their great industrial design was often accompanied by the most cryptic of user interfaces, requiring the mentality of a Times crossword solver to use. However, the recent generation has flipped that, the overlays they have put on the stock android interface have been generally useful, plus decent sized batteries as embodied in the G5S.
  3. $$$ – In this bracket I’d suggest three options, an iPhone SE (if you really need an iOS device), the more robust of the iPhones. A ruggedized “Dirty Harry” phone, designed to be dropped in muddy puddles, run over by Land Rovers and still work (unlike their owners), then I’d suggest something like the Cat S60 (or S41). The S60 has a FLIR camera, not as the name suggest designed to help capture a rare Pokémon but an infra-red thermal imaging camera, which might have a niche use case for frontline disaster responders. Finally, if you want something which is ethically sourced and manufactured with the added bonus of reparability, then take a look at the Fairphone
  4. $$$$+ – Here we get into the uber phones such as the iPhone X, Samsung S8, etc. and to be honest I struggle to see any justification for these phones in this context.

What Mobile Phone do I Use?

Last and probably least, I here you asking, so what mobile phone do I use? At this point I need to own up to being afflicted with an iDisorder which compels me to switch smartphones every 3 – 6 months, not so much to be up with latest uber-phone but more because I have an unhealthy obsession with phone “innovations”.

My discarded phone drawer is littered with “unique” mobile phones which never quite made the mass market e.g. Sidekick, Yotaphone (with e-ink screen), Nokia bricks, Windows phones, etc.

motorola z play

Which brings me to my phone du jour, this is a Motorola Z Play, which ironically has stood by me as other devices have come and gone for over 12 months. Why has this bucked my ever-changing device obsession?

First it has a 2 day+ battery life, second it is fairly solid and robust with a large screen for my failing eyesight and thirdly it feeds my iDisorder by having an evolving array of add-on modules including a speaker, battery pack, projector, etc. which just work without needing 30 mins of re-pairing Bluetooth connections.

Happy phone hunting and don’t forget to check with the users you’re sourcing or recommending phones for, what it is they need.

By Martin Harris of Ubiquitilink.

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One Comment to “Which Mobile Phones Work Best for Disaster Responders and Humanitarian Aid Field Teams?”

  1. Tanya says:

    A dual SIM in most countries reduces the amount an owner spends since few network operators require prepaid plans. The owner is able to take advantage of the reduced fee when calling someone within the same mobile network. They top up as needed and choose which SIM to use according to the SIM the person they’re calling owns. It’s a huge advantage having access to more than one network. It seems like aid workers who have single SIM phones end up carrying more than one handset.