UNICEF in emergencies

‘Bee’ system prototypes represent the future of connectivity in emergencies

© UNICEF/2008
Outside New York City, technicians from UNICEF’s Division of Communication test a prototype of the ‘Bee’ system, designed to allow for improved communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions.

NEW YORK, USA, 20 August 2008 – UNICEF has successfully tested the first two prototypes of the ‘Bee’, a mobile communication system developed by the Division of Communication. The Bee will allow communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions where such technologies are often difficult or impossible to use.

The system is designed to work within UNICEF’s ‘build back better’ policy of helping families and communities recover from emergencies. While the components of the Bee are intended initially to facilitate crisis-response operations, they are eventually to be left behind and integrated into the community’s monitoring, evaluation, education and health programmes.

Development of the Bee system began as an effort by UNICEF to answer questions such as:

  • How can field workers quickly and effectively register children in emergencies?
  • How can education materials be provided to 40 or more children at a time, even in the most harsh conditions?
  • What type of set-up would allow community radio to dispense information and local content to regular FM radios, and to share that content globally?
  • How can SMS text messaging be used to monitor an emergency?

Included in the first prototypes are webcams, radio transmitters and ultra-low-power computers. These components are run with open-source software designed to support the efforts of field workers and partners, and to be locally adapted for ongoing use.

Ease of transportation
Communication materials and tools play a vital role in UNICEF’s emergency responses. The Bee system allows UNICEF to establish, replicate and move infrastructure with ease – like a queen bee supporting various workers engaged in building the capacity of the community.

The system is being designed to augment relief work done in the first two weeks of an emergency.

One challenge for the designers was creating a system that can be easily transported by a single person. With this lightness and agility in mind, the first prototype of the Bee is a kiosk that folds into itself. The second is a self-contained, hardened case that can be checked as carry-on luggage on a commercial flight.

Power and connectivity
In many emergency and field settings, access to both power and connectivity are limiting factors to communication. The Bee has been built in a modular fashion, allowing it to be charged with solar power (with a run time of 38 hours), a car battery or a conventional power source.

© UNICEF/2008
The Bee system is intended to help field workers quickly and effectively register children in emergencies.

The Bee is also able to connect to global telecommunications networks using a satellite receiver or a mobile phone, or through its built-in, long-distance WiFi capacity.

Any other device near the Bee units can then share that connectivity. Thus PDAs, laptops and mobile phones can be used even if the traditional infrastructure in the area has been destroyed.

History and future of the Bee
The Bee system was initiated in close consultation with experts from UNICEF's country offices, as well as from academia and the private sector.

Because the system is open-source in all its software, hardware and design, there will be no restrictions on its use and no licensing fees for the software. What’s more, the design can be replicated using off-the-shelf components.

After initial testing, the second round of development will occur in South Africa during the end of this month and the beginning of September. UNICEF will be working with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria to develop further prototypes and test them in the field.




12 August 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Gareth Evans reports on the technology UNICEF is developing to enable it to work more efficiently in emergencies.
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