Cloud based information in disaster response

This is a post that has literally been on my plate for weeks! I wrote a first version just after I came back from Haiti, then let it lie, then rewrote it completely and then got invited to do a presentation about almost exactly this topic during the “Content is King” conference in Dublin last week. You find the presentation at the bottom of this post.

The question is: How useful are Twitter, Ushahidi, Facebook etc in disasters at the moment?

In this post I won’t go much into the potential and in what could be but will try to have a sober look at where we are today.

I like to look at this question in three different areas:

  1. Information inside the disaster zone
  2. Information coming in and out of the disaster zone
  3. Information about the disaster.

Inside the disaster zone

Screenshot: is a local Ushahidi application in Haiti.

Assuming we are talking about a developing country, I don’t think social media really plays a substantial role.

By far the best technology to send an receive information aside from radio is by SMS. While many people don’t have access to a computer and the  internet, mobile phones are ubiquitous. In Haiti, the Red Cross is able to target broadcasts to the point where even single cellphone towers can be selected, enabling us to send information that is relevant to that specific area. But we need to get better at using mobile phones to collect information. Multiple choice SMS-surveys are a first start, but we still have a long way to go.

I have also become more critical of Ushahidi than in the past. While Ushahidi is good at collecting information, they aren’t very good at effectively linking up with relief organizations. In my opinion collecting information without being able to then follow-up is just not good enough. When you ask people “What do you need” you also have to have the infrastructure in place to then do something with it. Else you are just creating false expectations.

To their credit, Ushahidi has recognized this and as far as I know is talking to humanitarian organizations.

Not so long ago, there was an interesting discussion about this at the UN Week Digital Media Lounge (see video below).

mashable on Broadcast Live Free

Information to and from the disaster zone

It would appear to be logical that this should be where social media excels – giving people a voice. And while that is true from a media point of view, it is not necessarily true from a response point of view.

After all, you already know that there is an earthquake or a flood etc.. So what you need is actionable information that can be used to shape the response. However, most information you find on social media channels after an earthquake is more descriptive. “Many houses have collapsed”, “people are sleeping on the street” etc. Again: from a media point of view this is good information but it doesn’t help when planning a response.

It’s certainly interesting and I think it can add additional dimensions to information you already have received, but it is of secondary interest only. But f course that is a criticism of the way the information is used and not of the tools. We could definitely make better use of these channels by agreeing on standards and training people to convey operational information.

Which brings me to my last category:

Information about a disaster

This is where social media really makes a difference! In the same way that we used to have the “CNN effect” we now have the “Twitter effect”. Social media is able to create attention for a disaster. And with attention comes donations. The American Red Cross was able to raise 32 million US dollars for Haiti through SMS and that process was partly driven by Twitter and other social media channels – in addition to traditional media. I am convinced that it wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for smart phones that already combine internet applications like Twitter and mobile technology. Convergence is the key

For me this is where social media is really relevant. Fundraising might not be as glamorous as giving people in repressive regimes a voice, but it is nevertheless vital. Because without donations, emergency response organizations couldn’t do their job. And unlike everything else, this is something where social media can make a real difference.

What do you think? Am I right or off the mark? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

View more of my presentations.

  • Glad you liked it! I had a great time in Dublin, too.

  • Ayesha Hasan

    Excellent post. Having dealt with 3 disasters in Pakistan i'm all for "Actionable information". Great term.

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  • Agnes

    Very good point
    Though, it seems in the case of Libya, where humanitarian access was poor and information scarce, crowdpmapping did make a critical difference to OCHA:
    I quote

    What the UN could not have done without the Volunteer Technical Community
    (…) the Stand By Task Force (SBTF), an organized group of 150+ volunteers skilled in online Crisis Mapping, was activated to map out the social media and traditional media reports from within the country – the result: So what? Well, given that the UN had virtually no access to the country, we now had situational awareness. How much is that worth to a agency planning its response? Could you plan with virtually no information? I know the site was being used by agencies such as the World Food Programme, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) the Red Cross,and USAID to perform certain types of analysis and to aid in their planning.
    In addition, we requested the SBTF to help with collection of Who’s-doing-What-Where (3W) information and baseline indicators values. Within 48 hours, we had 100+ activities collected and compiled. Let’s put that in perspective: the same amount of data took about 4 weeks in the Philippines, 2 weeks in Haiti, and 2 weeks in Pakistan to be made avalable. See an improvement? Combining this data with Libya Crisis Map, we can now overlay the reported health needs with the actual health response – gap analysis. In regards to the baseline indicator compilation task, it had never been done before so I cannot even compare it to past experience."

    • Thanks Agnes. You are certainly raising a good point there. I’d love to read the article you linked to but it’s gated 🙁

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  • Jill Finlayson

    Just came across this post and thought I would share a recent conversation on Striking Poverty about mapping and disaster management. The conversation showcases several innovators in real-time mapping for preparedness, response, and recovery. Take a look and comment.