When Disaster Strikes: Social Media Drives Self Recovery

What a summer it has been for me! The weather in Berlin has been gorgeous, I had the opportunity to work on interesting projects that kept me busy (more about those in the next couple of weeks) and I got married!!! All good reasons to not update this blog – but now it’s time to get back and publish.

I’ll start with an article that I recently wrote for NTEN, the Nonprofit Technology Network. Let me know what you think about it in the comments:


When Disaster Strikes: Social Media Drives Self Recovery

Social media has become part of the daily lives of billions of people. When disaster strikes, these are the networks that they turn to. Yet many organizations still treat social networks mainly as a fundraising instrument, rather than as a chance to connect and engage with people. This is a missed opportunity that reduces both operational efficiency and undermines the authority of formal disaster responders. What is needed is operational capacity building, particularly at the local level.

The first thing that disaster survivors want is not food, water or shelter, but information: “Where is everyone? Is everyone ok?” – these are the first thoughts that go through people’s minds. It doesn’t matter whether you were safe at home while your spouse was travelling in Japan when the Tsunami hit, whether you were cheering for your child from the sidelines during the 2013 Boston Marathon, or whether you yourself were living in downtown Kathmandu when the earthquake struck on 25 April. The second you hear that a loved one is in danger, you grab your phone and try to call. Of course, odds are that you will not get through, since the phone network has very likely crashed – if not because of the disaster, then because of the thousands of people trying to do the same as you. Internet connections on the other hand frequently stay up, even after the mobile phone networks have crashed.

As a result, social media is increasingly becoming the best way for disaster survivors to tell their friends and family that they are safe. That is not a small thing, particularly if you are in the affected area yourself. What’s more, this very emotionally charged action anchors social media in the minds of the affected people as the place to go for information related to the disaster. It is therefore only logical that they also turn to social media to coordinate their next steps. Not only is it where they have already found information, it is also where they can access their virtual support network that can help them cope with the crisis.

Facebook Safety Check

The Nepal earthquake and Facebook’s Safety Check
Following the earthquake in Nepal, Facebook activated “Safety Check“, a normally dormant Facebook feature that helps friends and relatives find out whether their loved ones are safe. To determine who might be in the affected area, Facebook uses information it constantly collects about its users, such as check-ins, IP addresses and profile information. It then asks these users to confirm whether they are safe and shares that information with their friends.

Alternatively, friends can also report their friends as safe. Compared to other, more sophisticated tracing mechanisms, Safety Check has the advantage that affected people can stay within the software environment they are already familiar with. By providing clarity on many easy cases, the application can help reduce the number of inquiries that reach more resource intensive services, thus freeing up capacity to focus on the more difficult cases.

After every disaster, we now see Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags springing into life whose sole purpose it is to identify needs and coordinate assistance. Within two days of the Nepal earthquake for example, a Facebook community dedicated to the response had attracted 15,000 fans.

From the point of view of institutional disaster responders this is both a blessing and a challenge. On the one hand, we know that most of the burden to rebuild their lives is borne by the affected people themselves and any tool that facilitates their self-recovery is positive. In fact, the requests for assistance posted and filled through social media can frequently meet the needs of individual households much more precisely than institutional responders. Where most large organizations plan their activities based on typical needs of households in affected areas, social media users typically post and address the concrete needs of distinct households.

On the other hand, this decentralized approach adds complexity from a coordination point of view: Since most formal disaster response organizations are not actively monitoring assistance organized through social media, the situational analyses of national and international disaster responders are missing an important aspect of the response, i.e. the resources that the community itself is able to mobilize. This in turn can lead to assistance not being optimally allocated, for example when an organization sends blankets or food to a village that already organized these goods via social media. It can also lead to very practical problems: During serious flooding in Germany in 2013 for example, volunteers who had organized themselves through Facebook, stacked sandbags in the wrong locations and without knowing how to build an effective sandbag barrier. This then forced professional disaster responders to reallocate their own resources to instruct the volunteers and to take down and rebuild the barriers.

The solution is obvious: National and international organizations must accept that social media networks are increasingly the forums through which communities coordinate their self-recovery activities. Yet very few organizations have embraced this change. A recent study of 26 natural and man-made disasters across the world found that during acute crises, NGOs mainly use their social media channels to ask for donations or volunteers, while government entities mainly broadcast messages of caution and advice. Real engagement was largely absent. As a result, affected people turn to their peers for assistance and advice. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, scientists found that the absence of social media engagement led to an erosion in the trust in formal authorities, yet these rely on their authority to fulfill their role.

A woman from Singla village extracts her belongings from the rubble.

A woman from Singla village extracts her belongings from the rubble.
Photo: ADB (CC BY 2.0) on Flickr

What is needed is a willingness and the capacity to accept affected communities as an active partner in the response – beyond the lip service that is routinely paid to the concept. This means not just monitoring what is being shared on social media but actively engaging with online communities. For many international organizations this involves additional challenges when the main language in the affected country is different from that of most staff. Therefore capacity building has to happen primarily at the level of national disaster response authorities and local staff, yet many organizations still block their national staff from accessing social media sites on their computers.

A middle-income county that is leading in this area is the Philippines who have included social media in their official emergency response mechanism and pro-actively communicate specific hashtags as part of their regular disaster preparedness programs.

The Digital Divide
Given that most humanitarian emergencies happen in parts of the world with poorly developed infrastructure, including limited access to information and communication technology (ICT), many organizations are skeptical about the usefulness of social media as an operational tool. In many contexts, that skepticism is both healthy and justified. Obviously, social media should only be used as an additional tool for disaster responders in appropriate situations, rather than deployed as a technology that replaces existing practices. But we also need to recognize that the percentage of people who have no access to telecommunications is shrinking. According to a 2014 report by the GSM Alliance, the developing world today accounts for two in every three smartphones on the planet. Even people who don’t have smartphones increasingly can have access to social networks because some of them have launched initiatives that allow users in low-income countries to access their platforms via SMS or through stripped-down, text-only versions. What’s more, urbanization gives more people access to better ICT infrastructure and further increase the number of people who have access to social networks.

Coordinating with structured and spontaneous groups of people who are organizing themselves through social media will be messy. Many organizations shy away from the engagement, because they are afraid that they don’t have enough resources. Groups like the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), can help lessen some of this burden by managing the relations between formal disaster responders and informal networks of online volunteers. However, ultimately social media monitoring and engagement have to be operationalized according to the goals they are meant to support.

At headquarters level, that includes marketing and fundraising. But in the case of emergencies it also means that program staff at the field level need to have the right tools and training to use social media to inform situational awareness, coordination and decision making. Much of this falls on the shoulders of national disaster responders, many of whom will need international support to build that capacity as part of their disaster preparedness plans.

In the long term, social media will be one of the factors that change communication and coordination from a pure top-down approach to many-to-many interaction that is facilitated through digital networks. This will require adjustments, particularly for organizations that are used to operating in a hierarchal structure; however, ultimately these changes will contribute to emergency response operations that are more appropriate to the needs of those affected by disasters.

First published in NTEN: Change, June 2015, CC BY-SA 3.0