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:
Information inside the disaster zone
Information coming in and out of the disaster zone
Information about the disaster.
Inside the disaster zone
Noula.ht 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.
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.