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Making DIStress calls - Updated

What if we had a unique SOS number that could be called from any cell phone irrespective of the carrier?

Photo of Priyanka Kodikal
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A special DIStress hotline could help people report any unrest or possible atrocities. A DIS number with a special extension could be allocated to areas/cities. For example, the DIS number for Syria is 797 and the identifier for Damascus is 1, the caller would dial 7971. This would help the monitoring station identify the location of the calls.

By phone

While my original concept was for mobile phones, I’ve revised this version to include both cell phones and landlines. A caller could call the DIS number from any phone.

By text

Allowing text messages to a DIS number is another possibility. This is where is see this concept blending well with Christophe Bilen’s concept to verify information instantly.


Chris S suggested using packet switched radios to make this concept cellular infrastructure independent.
"You only need 910 packet-switched radios to cover the entire country of Syria.
Here's the math: A radio with a 5 mile radius has a coverage area of 78 miles. The entire area of Syria is 71,000 square miles. 71,000 / 78 = 910.
It might be possible for Allison's packet switched radio device to receive signals directly from Ava's cell phone without having to go through a cell phone network.
Not only would it be carrier-independent, it would be cellular infrastructure independent."

Given my limited knowledge about this technology, I was unable to elaborate further. Any advice is greatly appreciated.


The USAID and Humanity International could partner with missionaries and NGO’s already present in the area to help spread the word and educate the population. Also, Arjan Tupan’s Enabler Cards would be perfect for this purpose. This information could be given out at schools, local shops, community events, etc… The locals could be encouraged to elect some specific trustworthy individuals in their community to make DIS calls.


Perhaps the USAID and Humanity International could partner with NGO’s and peacekeepers already present in the area to help monitor the calls. These facilities often have some form of communication such as the internet or phone lines. For example, they are given devices to recieve DIS calls and texts only from the number allocated to the area/city. Depending on the number and quality of the calls, the receivers could determine the risk level and report it accordingly. These reports could be published by leveraging existing platforms such as Ushahidi.


There could possibly be some limitations is deploying and sustaining this concept. Especially with a government led atrocity, during which NGOs and peacekeepers are driven out, monitoring and reporting calls could be difficult. Perhaps using radio technology would be helpful.

NGO volunteers/employees could fear for their own safety in monitoring and reporting these calls.



Ava is a village teacher and also a designated member of the community to help make distress calls.

She notices some unpleasant strangers around the village. She asks her neighbors if they knew those men. A neighbor tells her that some people have been asking suspicious questions and that he is starting to get worried.

Ava is now worried and thinks she should report this incident. The USAID and Humanity United have provided a special DIS number for her village to report such disturbances. Ava calls the DIS number and leaves a message.

The USAID and Humanity Unlimited work with NGOs/peacekeepers that serve as intermediaries in the region. The calls and texts are directed to these NGOs.

Others around the village are sensing distress and making these calls as well. The DIS number allows people to call and leave messages to protect the anonymity of the caller and the receiver.

The NGO receiving these calls is noticing a rise in the communication to this DIS number. It could now report this and decide on a course of action. 

How does your idea gather AND verify information? How does your idea keep those who use it safe?

The phone carriers or those with access to call information could track could track and verify the location. Callers can remain anonymous. If they need to flee the area, they still have access to the DIS number, as it it carrier independent. In this case the caller could leave a message specifying the location of distress.

How might your idea be designed to scale and spread to help as many people as possible?

This empower people to make the call and report incidences they feel threatened by.

How might your idea make use of exisiting technology? Has your idea been tried in a different or related context?

This concept leverages an existing technology used by cell phones. However, we need a way to incorporate this special number.

How could you begin prototyping this idea in a simple way to begin testing and refining it? Who would use your idea and/or who is using it now? Is your idea technically easy medium or hard to implement?

I wouldn't say this is difficult to implement, but would require consensus from many parties. This could be a bottleneck. To prototype this idea, the challenge sponsors could reach out to their partners in the field to set up a mock scenario and select a handful of locals to play callers. The callers could be given phones and enabler cards, and certain triggers could be used to see how both callers and receivers respond to warning calls.

How is your idea adapted for conditions in hard-to-access areas, such as lack of internet and mobile access? Can users adopt it without much behavior change?

While internet access is not needed, mobile access is. However, it does not restrict one to his or her own carrier.

Evaluation results

12 evaluations so far

1. How scalable would this idea be across regions and cultures?

Looks like it’d be easy to spread across multiple regions and cultures - 91.7%

This idea could scale but it might need further iteration to make it widely relevant - 8.3%

Seems that this idea would best be suited for a single region/population - 0%

2. Would a lot of resources be required to create a pilot for this idea? (think time, capacity, money, etc)

This idea looks easy to pilot with minimal resources being invested - 33.3%

Feels like this idea could take a moderate amount of resources to pilot - 33.3%

Seems like piloting this idea would take a lot of resources - 33.3%

3. How suitable is this idea for various challenges on the ground such as lack of internet or mobile access?

Yep, it feels like it could work easily beyond internet or mobile access - 8.3%

Not so sure – it looks like it would require online or mobile connectivity - 58.3%

This idea definitely seems to rely on internet or mobile access - 33.3%

4. Could this idea put users or others at risk?

Nope, it looks like everyone would be safe - 33.3%

There are some potential concerns, but these could be addressed with further iteration - 50%

I can imagine some people being put at risk with this idea - 16.7%

5. Overall, how do you feel about this concept?

This idea rocked my world - 50%

I liked it but preferred others - 33.3%

It didn't get me overly excited - 16.7%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Mark Longchamps

Hmmm looks like Google has scooped us all!
Looks like Google is going to put up a network of balloons in Africa for web access. I wonder if they could piggy back a cell phone distress number on the network. If Google can fly around balloons in Africa for web access, it should be possible.

Photo of Priyanka Kodikal

That is so cool! Great idea Mark! I'll probably update the concept with this hypothetical scenario. Thanks for the info...

Photo of Mark Longchamps

If it happens it would be a solve to a lot of these problems.....

Photo of DeletedUser


Nice if that would come true, it would be a game leveler.

Photo of Priyanka Kodikal

Completely agree!

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