Whether it is Twitter or Sina Weibo (a Chinese Twitter-like microblog), YouTube or Facebook, neighbours or friends, the multiplicity of information outlets is shifting power from aid agencies to disaster-affected communities, according to a recently launched UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report Humanitarianism in the Network Age.
“Technology is profoundly changing the nature of disaster response for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly, because it is changing the way that people themselves respond to disasters,” said Imogen Wall, coordinator of communications with affected communities for OCHA.
“A working phone is fast becoming a necessity for communities as they self-organize and source resources - whether they are trying to find family members, reach out to relatives overseas for assistance or organize a local relief effort,” she added.
Cesar Esguerra, 60, a father of five in the Philippines, is never without his mobile phone, which allows him to communicate via text messages with his children, relatives and even local officials, he said.
When a storm triggered week-long flooding in August 2012, Esguerra waited in his home in Pasig near Manila's main water artery that cuts through the country of 100 million for the first alerts via phone. He then quickly led his family and neighbours out of harm's way.
“You know the government will help you, but there is only so much rescuers can do. You have to help yourself," he said. "Otherwise you will die."
According to the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2013, there are almost as many mobile phone subscriptions in the world as there are people with more than half of those (3.5 billion out of a total of 6.8 billion) in the Asia-Pacific region.
Able to organize their own relief efforts through Twitter and Facebook (as has been the case in the Philippines), a growing number of disaster-struck communities are becoming less dependent on aid groups and governments as their only conduits to relief.
“Technology also makes it easier for people to hold international agencies to account: they increasingly have access not only to information on response online, and - crucially - [but also] the ability to communicate their experience of the response directly to their governments, donors and the international public through platforms such as YouTube,” said Paul Knox Clarke, head of research and communications at the London-based umbrella group of aid organizations called the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP).
Microblogs (a shorter, more focused version of the traditional blog) in China helped volunteers coordinate clandestine rescue efforts after a 20 April earthquake in Sichuan Province killed nearly 200 people and injured more than 13,000; two days after the disaster, volunteers organized through the Mandarin-language ‘Sina Weibo’, defied government warnings to deliver aid to quake-hit villages, according to international media.
But as many tales as there are of technology boosting a community’s ability to respond to disaster, such technology is still reaching only a fraction of those in need, said Clarke. While almost 80 percent of people in developed countries have Internet access, this rate falls to 32 percent in Asia and the Pacific and 16 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
“New technologies work best where they are robust, flexible enough to change without massive investment, and accessible. So in some cases, `lower tech’ approaches, such as radio [and] phone-in shows, which do not rely on literate people sending texts and are already well known within communities, may be a better option,” he added.
But OCHA’s Wall said these distinctions among different media are increasingly “artificial”.
“The principle is to look for what people already use and trust, and work with that. In some places it’s radio, in some it’s friends and family and in some it’s social media. Most commonly, and increasingly, it's a mesh of all three. People tweet information they have heard on the radio, [or] discuss info[rmation] on [Facebook] with friends,” she said.
“Facebook and Twitter are really just digital versions of word-of-mouth, after all,” Wall concluded.
One main difference is that “digital versions” of word-of-mouth news are more easily crippled during post-disaster blackouts. And even if telecommunications come back up, for the less tech-savvy among disaster survivors, mostly the elderly, their lack of familiarity with the Internet can cut them off from lifesaving information, according to media-training NGO Internews.
Additionally, technology does not always translate into more “usable” information, warned Alanna Shaikh, a “strategic information” consultant focused on making sure the right health data is collected (and used) in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku.
“The 2010 Pakistani floods is such a case. There were plenty of data available but no one was interpreting or acting on it. Social media in a disaster can easily turn into a muddle of useless data,” she said adding that when Hurricane Sandy hit the US in October 2012, falsified photos that were rapidly re-tweeted intensified fear among locals in the storm’s path.
OCHA’s Wall said all mediums of information during an emergency carry the risk of inaccuracy - not only digital media. And at least with the latter, a rapid-fire rumour is more quickly extinguished, she said.
“There is evidence that social media actually carries a greater capacity to self-correct and identify misinformation than conventional media, given the number of people involved, the knowledge they collectively possess and the speed at which social media works,” she added.
Not enough outreach
Even as ways to get - and give - information multiply, aid workers are still struggling to communicate with communities hit by disaster.
A report on information technology (IT) use during the 2010 Pakistani floods, released by the US based NetHope, a collaboration of 38 NGOs aiming to improve IT connectivity in developing countries, found that overall information-sharing among the humanitarian groups, affected communities and local authorities was insufficient.
Although limited information was conveyed via radio and other media, communities still reported not getting what they needed - as well as no explanation for why certain needs were met while others were not - fuelling speculation of religious and ethnic discrimination.
Similarly in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, following two outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2012, a recent independent assessment conducted for the UN reported that ethnic Rakhines (primarily Buddhist) reported feeling that aid workers had historically favoured the Rohingya ethnic community (predominantly Muslim) at Rakhines’ expense.
The 118 Rakhine residents from the state’s capital, Sittwe, who were surveyed requested more information about the humanitarian response and listed radio, newspapers, family, friends and community leaders as their most trusted information sources.
While acknowledging the challenge that “tension between communities is both extremely deep-seated and historically pervasive, and attitudes cannot be changed overnight”, the report’s authors recommended aid groups work more with national journalists to inform them about humanitarian principles, including impartiality. "The media represents a significant means to share information with the wider population in Rakhine, and as such closer links should be actively built with key media groups," noted the authors.
Among the efforts under way to boost communication during disasters, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is looking to partner with local cell phone providers in disaster-prone zones to run its two-way emergency SMS system, while the Digital Humanitarian Network brings together a dozen different technical groups that volunteer during emergencies to do everything from generating maps to providing translations and guiding natural disaster survivors to public services.
The 2010-2012 UK-government funded Infoasaid project, implemented by BBC Media Action and Internews, created diagnostic tools to help groups design their communication strategies; mapped media and telecommunication operators in the most crisis-prone zones; and published communication case studies, including aid groups’ lessons from the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
In 2009 media, humanitarian and technology groups formed the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities network to boost information going to - and coming from - affected communities. Its most recent strategy paper noted “there is a sense that the system is `stuck’ and unable to make substantive progress” to make a case that communication with communities is a must in the aid world.
The case is “compelling”, but the incentives to invest - proof that communication is worth the investment - are still few.