Will Twitter put the U.N. out of the disaster business?

March 24, 2012

How is communications technology transforming disaster response?

A business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long — it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer.

In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving.

That’s because relief agency “lines of accountability” – to use a much-loved piece of aid jargon – are to the donor governments who fund the bulk of their activities, rather than to the people on the ground who are caught up in the crisis.

Choose a disaster, any disaster, and the result is the same — the last people to know what the heck is going on are the affected populations.

Meanwhile, the aid workers who earnestly pile in to plonk down food parcels and tarpaulins often don’t have a clue what people really think of their benevolence. They simply don’t bother to ask them.

The interlocking cogs of an international aid response are complex and many – food, water, shelter, health, logistics, protection and the like – but nobody has bothered to create an official cog for information.

Four years ago, the BBC World Service Trust highlighted this state of affairs in a policy briefing titled Left in the dark. The paper urged the humanitarian sector to give the same importance to information as it does to tents and medical kits. In other words, treat information as a form of aid.

The Trust, rechristened BBC Media Action, has now published a sequel: Still left in the dark? It says that while aid agencies remain pretty bad at communicating with affected populations, there are at least plenty of examples of innovative work to capture the imagination.

What they all have in common is that they capitalise on the explosion in access to communications technology.

A lot of those experiments were on show at a “media and tech fair” held this week at Google’s London office. The event was organised by the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network, a group of aid agencies and media development organisations committed to improving two-way information flows. (Thomson Reuters Foundation is a founding member).

From open-source software you can use to broadcast emergency information by SMS (short message service) to radio-in-a-box technology you can carry in a suitcase, there were no shortages of gadgets to help aid workers communicate.

“Mobile technology seems to be the single most resilient technology we’ve got – and the good news is it’s going everywhere,” Paul Currion, a consultant specialising in information management and humanitarian coordination, told the crowd at the fair.

Consider these factoids to see the truth in that statement.

  • More than 5 billion people worldwide use mobile phones.
  • In the time you take to read this sentence, about half a million text messages will have been sent worldwide (the current rate is about 200,000 per second).
  • After the earthquake last year in Christchurch, New Zealand, the only communications system that wasn’t knocked out was the mobile internet system. You couldn’t text or call but you could consult Google’s Person Finder.

The Haiti earthquake has been hailed as the first example of Disaster Relief 2.0 because mobile technology allowed a ragbag of non-traditional players to get stuck in – remote “crowd-sourcers” and “crisis-mappers”, for example, who mashed up information sent via text message by survivors onto digital maps.

These new players weren’t particularly joined up to the U.N.-led relief effort on the ground, and some of the more evangelical among them made absurd claims about their impact in saving lives without any evidence that they actually did.

But they certainly made the humanitarian system sit up and take notice.

“What worries me is that the humanitarian industry could end up like the record industry – still staggering along, still providing services, but increasingly irrelevant,” Currion said.

Eric Hersman, co-founder of the much-publicised Ushahidi crowd-sourcing platform, put the challenge more bluntly, comparing the humanitarian sector to the long-beleaguered media industry: “We’re going to see things change. We’re going to see organisations die.”

Watch out, United Nations. Watch out NGOs.

In fact, they are watching out. If they’re not exactly racing to catch up, there was a palpable sense among the aid workers at the Google event that they’d better embrace this newfangled technology or it could come back to bite them.

“There is lots of good will, and lots of good examples at field level, but they’re usually confined to a single agency,” said Derk Segaar, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “At the system level we have a long way to go.”

A project called infoasaid, a joint initiative by BBC Media Action and Internews, exists solely to help aid agencies improve their two-way communications. Its website offers e-learning modules, interactive country guides listing local media organisations and info-tech infrastructure and a library of generic emergency messaging.

But many aid agencies don‘t have the time or resources to take all this on, simply because it is not “mainstreamed” into their activities. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has a dedicated “beneficiary communications” officer, but such posts are rare.

Meanwhile, there are valid concerns about the “consumerisation” of disaster communications – ranging from fears over what happens to user data in politically insecure environments to the proliferation of white noise.

John Crowley, who leads the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Crisis Dynamics Programme, described the “paradox of being utterly overwhelmed with information but still not able to get the information you need to make a decision”.

Chances are if the next big earthquake is in Indonesia, whose citizens make up one of the world’s most prolific nations of tweeters, it will be the dubbed the first Twitter Quake. But will aid agencies be in on the conversation? What difference would it make even if they were?

“It’s not actually about the technology,” said Ushahidi’s Hersman. “It’s about how it’s used that’s important.”

Picture credit: Opposition supporters talk near graffiti referring to the social networking site “Twitter” in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 5, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Crisp



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staggeringly true!

Posted by VeroBarbosa | Report as abusive

Great round-up of the issues thrown up by new technology in humanitarian responses. It’s also worth bearing in mind that as the frequency and intensity of different disasters change (slow onset droughts compared to sudden floods), so too will the technology. And, as you alluded to, conflict, post-conflict and other factors all mean it’s about choosing the right medium (however high or low tech).

From our perspective at ALNAP, the use of different technologies to create more effective feedback and evaluations is very exciting and we look forward to more good work from CDAC.

Posted by ALNAP | Report as abusive

Of course communicating with ‘beneficiaries’ is important (although I’d disagree with the analogy that they are the clients/customers of a humanitarian system that is a business – not useful and far too simplistic).
Also in my experience it is not only because of all of the new possibilities for communication that agencies are suddenly seeing the possibility of communicating at all, any more than the new possibilities will be any guarantee of doing communication well.
That said, there are exciting new things happening, and some new challenges to agencies along the way. If you want to get an insight into some of all this, have a look at FMR’s Technology issue www.fmreview.org .

Posted by FMReview | Report as abusive