Innovative technology speeds up tracing of children separated by tsunami in Indonesia

A 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on 28 September unleashed a tsunami.

Lely Djuhari
Two people looking at the aftermath of Tsunami.
UNICEF Indonesia/2018/Wilander

15 February 2019

A 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on 28 September unleashed a tsunami. In the ensuing chaos, parents desperately held onto their children but many were separated while trying to outrun three successive waves.

In the days after the disaster, grieving families stuck posters on shop windows and lamp posts, pleading passers-by for any information of their missing children. Once electricity and telecommunication services were back on, many posted their plight on social media channels.

“It’s a huge challenge to get a comprehensive picture of how many children are missing. There are more requests to reunite children and parents than information on children found,” said Febraldi, the team leader from the Ministry of Social Affairs deployed from Jakarta to coordinate protection efforts.

Febraldi, team leader from the Ministry of Social Affairs and I Made Sukawancita, UNICEF Technology for Development Officer, in front of the joint secretariat and child center in Palu.
UNICEF Indonesia/2018/Wilander
Febraldi, team leader from the Ministry of Social Affairs (left) and I Made Sukawancita, UNICEF Technology for Development Officer, in front of the joint secretariat and child center in Palu.

UNICEF is supporting the Government of Indonesia to set up 12 posts in the affected areas for people to seek and offer information on missing children.

These locations are also being used as safe spaces for children to play. After distributing 2,700 posters, and publishing social media posts with their hotline numbers, the team received 117 tracing requests.

But every hour and every day counts when a child is separated from their parent.

Enter an innovative tool that speeds up family tracing and reunification. It’s called Primero, an open source software platform that helps social workers manage protection-related data. 

 What are the advantages of using this platform?

“It’s faster, more convenient and mobile. It has a wider reach. It’s quite simple and we can tap information from Palu and other areas,” said I Made Suwancita, UNICEF Indonesia’s Technology for Development Officer.

Fifty-six social workers from the Ministry and aid groups have been trained to enter data on Primero’s Indonesian-language web and mobile versions. They input the missing child’s name, gender, date of birth, address as well as the parents’ basic information, and a short chronology of how they were separated.

“We met people and scoured the postings of citizen groups such as Info Palu on Facebook,” said Fadlun Badjerey a social worker. “My neck and back ached; my vision blurred when we huddled over our mobiles and worked past midnight. But it’s worth it.”

Fadlun Badjerey, a social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs, puts up drawings made by children who survived the tsunami and earthquake on 28 October.
UNICEF Indonesia/2018/Wilander
Fadlun Badjerey, a social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs, puts up drawings made by children who survived the tsunami and earthquake on 28 October.

The last time Indonesia experienced a major tsunami was on Boxing Day in 2004. At that time, social workers and aid groups grappled with a bigger caseload, but only had pen and paper to track all the data.

Primero has been used in other countries during conflicts and in the aftermath of natural disasters since 2013.

In Indonesia, it was originally designed for child-protection related data management in non-emergency contexts.

Other UNICEF-initiated tech innovations in the country include U-report. Using Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Short Messaging Service, the platform was launched in 2014 for polling, empowering 85,000 young people to be heard by policy makers and providing them with access to reliable information.

In 2015, UNICEF started to pilot RapidPro technology for health workers to use to collect, monitor and disseminate health information such as childhood immunization coverage, through text messaging.

In Central Sulawesi, Made himself has been inundated with requests from Government partners to adapt U-Report and RapidPro for use with social and health workers. It is now easier to track how many children attend the child centres every afternoon to play and receive psychosocial services. Field workers have also been trained to enter data for school safety assessment. 

Posts on social media using U-Report, communicating directly to the people in the affected areas and beyond, helped reunite seven children from their loved ones.

As for Primero, 28 children (16 boys; 12 girls) have so far been reunified with family and supported with case management through the platform.

These innovations, led by UNICEF, are proving to be time-saving and efficient tools that save and protect children.