Is This the Most Humanitarian Idea Ever?

When disaster strikes, the world comes together. Following earthquakes, fires, tsunamis and natural disasters, volunteers from around the world travel to the affected areas to help their fellow humans.

The coordination of these relief efforts is enormously complicated with many factors that need to be taken into account. The expertise of the volunteers must be considered, and resources must be allocated in the same way a trauma ward prioritises patients. In the middle of this, other victims are desperately seeking help for themselves and the people they love. They will approach rescue workers, pleading for assistance and offering the most comprehensive information available about their circumstances. After all, they know the location, understand the terrain and can give potentially life-saving advice.

So, what happens when the victim doesn’t speak the same language as the rescuer? What happens when translators have been allocated to more critical areas? The answer is that people die, rescues fail, and rescue workers are put in jeopardy.

Thanks to a device called “Douglas”, this may be all a thing of the past. Douglas looks like a mobile phone and easily fits into a rescuer’s pocket or pouch. It requires no mobile signal and does not use any form of data beyond what is stored on the device itself.

A victim approaches the rescuer, panicking because her husband is trapped under some rubble and is struggling to breathe. The rescuer takes out Douglas and speaks into it. “Talk into this device and tell me exactly what is going on.” A few moments later, the device – using a local accent – translates the rescuer’s message to the victim in their own language.

The victim is able to explain that her husband is trapped and that there is a patch of unstable ground just beyond where he is. She can also tell the rescue team that her husband has a heart condition and that she doesn’t know where his medication is. Importantly, she can do all of this instantly.

Douglas is a powerful tool, not only because it can instantly translate a conversation, but because it will store a text log of everything that is said. If a victim tells a rescue worker that a child is trapped 300m to the east on a street called “Flint Road,” the text log can be referred to if the directions are forgotten or if the rescue worker becomes distracted with another critical assignment.

In times of crisis, communication is one of the most significant barriers to an effective rescue. People in immediate danger can lose their lives when 30 seconds are lost or when a team of rescuers mistakenly goes down the wrong road. Douglas could help speed up the rescue process and help volunteers do what they are there for – saving people.

Douglas was initiated after Dr Julie Vonwiller learned of the difficulties experienced by relief organisations when communicating with the disaster victims in the field. Julie had previously worked with other organisations requiring translation in rapid time. Together with colleague Dr James Nealand, an expert in embedded systems, and supported by collaborators in Singapore and United States, they designed and built a proof of principle software system for Android, utilising off-the-shelf software systems where available.

An Android phone containing the Douglas app can be viewed at The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering. For more information about the project, or questions about how to get involved, contact


This story is featured in the 7 December 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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