Internet of Things buttons for humanitarian response

I was recently asked, ‘How can the British Red Cross (BRC) be more transparent about the work we do?’

Along these lines, and thinking practically — ‘Can we give an overview of all the work the British Red Cross is doing?’ To answer this currently, you’d need to leverage existing BRC information systems, but the reality is that these are cumbersome and slow. Any picture we could paint would take around 6 months for the data to collected, cleaned and analysed. Not exactly snappy.

I started to think about whether a light-weight faster system could be set up in parallel. We wouldn’t want to add to the reporting burden already shouldered by many front-line staff who sometimes feel like data inputters rather responders. Building on the principle of minimum viable data I thought what is the lightest weight input possible?

A single button press! Internet of Things (IoT) buttons are magic buttons (or little wi fi devices) that when pressed can be assigned a digital function such as writing a line to a database. Could IoT buttons be distributed to service points to capture actions? Every time a first aid responder helps someone, with a press of a button their activity could appear on a map or every time the BRC lends a piece of medical equipment, a pulse could appear in real time showing what is happening.


I wrote a function to enter the button ID and time into a hxlated google spreadsheet every time a button was pressed. I then based a visualisation off this spreadsheet. The final workflow was:

Data flow of prototype

Each ID was then assigned coordinates, a latitude/longitude. The whole process took about 3 to 4 hours to set up and now when a button is clicked, an appropriate flash appears on the map where the button is located.

IoT button triggering an action on a dashboard

This lightweight system should be able to support a full pilot and rapid prototyping allows us to test the idea early on to see if it is feasible.

The future

What would the activity of the British Red Cross look like over 24 hours?

I’ve also started considering other scenarios where IoT buttons might be useful, namely in international disaster response. Due to problems of wireless connectivity in the prototyping, we also found 3G enabled IoT buttons that work globally and also provide a GPS point. This got me thinking about how our emergency response units (ERUs) might be able to utilise them. ERUs are specialised units that are deployed in the wake of a disaster. Amongst the chaos it can be really hard to get consistent information on where these units are working and where distributions have taken place. Assuming connectivity is in place, could we give each unit a IoT button to press every time they do a distribution to get a rough idea of the activities happening? We might not know exactly how much was distributed, but at least we would have a good idea of where we are working, something which is a struggle in the early days of a response.

Next steps are to pilot this in the real world.

Hetco Design, British Red Cross and Centre for Humanitarian Data | Human Centred Design + HXL + Data + Humanitarian Response