Technology without capacity pretty useless, study finds

Social media and SMS platforms are often promoted as tools to collect feedback from disaster affected populations and to increase accountability and transparency. While that sounds good on paper (and allows you to tick the “innovation” checkbox on your donor proposal), the question is: does it actually work?

Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan

Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Timo Luege

The Humanitarian Technologies Project, a joint research project led by four universities, has taken 18 months to look at how humanitarian agencies used digital communication technologies to communicate with people following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

Their findings are not very flattering: in essence, many humanitarian organisations employed a top-down approach laden with assumptions about how people should communicate:

“One of our main findings is that the assumptions about technology present in humanitarian policies do not translate to actual uses of technology by affected populations. (…)

Communication technologies do not give people a ‘voice’. Technologies can facilitate voice but only as long as other factors, such as social capital and a strong civil society, are present. (…)

We found that much of our participants’ mediated communication resembles an ‘echo chamber’ and not a dialogue. Participants are likely to share their views with their peers but not with representatives from aid or government agencies.”

In other words: instead of thinking about how community feedback can be meaningfully collected and used to improve programming, agencies deployed shiny new tools because it looked good. Instead of being interested in what people had to say, agencies simply put digital repositories into place where people could deposit their opinions and suggestions without having any impact:

“We found that feedback was hardly acted upon. Of our few participants who offered feedback most only received an acknowledgement and clarification to their issues, without leading to satisfactory outcomes. The effects of not closing the feedback loop are potentially very harmful as they can lead to further silencing and demoralization of affected people. (…)

Systematic questioning of beneficiaries without closing the feedback loop can disenfranchise affected people and diminish trust of humanitarian agencies.”

Sadly, this reminds me a lot of the problems we have seen with SMS projects following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Back then, SMS projects raised expectations that sending a text message with concrete needs would result in concrete assistance. Instead as an ALNAP study put it “there was confusion – people would say, you are telling me that you can give me help, but all I get is how to wash my hands.”

Technology vs capacity

The problem in both cases is not one of technology but one of capacity. It is much easier to set up a Facebook page where people can post messages, than to think about how to actually use community feedback to improve programming. The former requires only an intern at HQ, the latter requires a business process that takes community feedback seriously and programme management that is receptive to suggestions for change. In other words, the latter requires capacity and resources and the right social and cultural environment.

I highly recommend reading the key findings of the Humanitarian Technologies Project. Not because their findings are surprising, but because being able to draw on these findings might help prevent wasting money on the next shiny new thing.

Of course it can make a lot of sense to use ICT tools to collect feedback from communities. But the decision, which tool is best suited for this purpose, should come at the end of the decision-making process, not at the beginning. We have to get away from saying “let’s create a Facebook page so that people can tell us what they think” and instead ask “what is the most meaningful way that members of this particular community can provide input to improve programming?”

h/t Rahel Dette from GPPI who told me about the Humanitarian Technologies Project.

  • Evert Bopp

    Glad to see this problem highlighted.
    Too often tech (and smem) is seen as the be all and end solution while really it’s just a tool. And as any other tool it needs trained and experienced users. There is also too often an attempt to “shape the message” and tell people how they should use social media in disaster time. Cart before horse stuff. It’s all a result of the “everyone can be a disaster responder” approach promoted by certain state agencies. To be honest during our last few deployments ( Refugee crisis, Nepal & Vanuatu) I have seen tech solutions such as smem, apps etc having very little impact on the ground.

    • Thanks for your comments, Evert! I find that it’s often a problem of at which level of the response social media is being used. I also find that it has less impact if used by international orgs/groups but that it can be very useful if used at the local/community level. Which is why I advocate for more capacity building at the local level and fewer social media monitoring programs at HQ level (unless they have a concrete use). I’d be interested in hearing about your experience in the refugee crisis, because in Germany, at the local level, social media has been instrumental in organizing assistance in the host communities.

      • Evert Bopp

        Agreed, too much focus is on after the facts analysis while the focus should be on actual usage at community and user level.
        It’s the difference between the use of technology being the goal in itself and technology just being another tool to achieve the goal of improved communication and coordination.

  • Thanks for this study, especially this quote: “Technologies can facilitate voice but only as long as other factors, such as social capital and a strong civil society, are present.”

    I ran the SMS-based reporting service in 2010 in Haiti that you mentioned, Mission 4636, and I couldn’t agree more. At the time we reported the same finding: “The greatest volume, speed and accuracy in information processing was by Haitian nationals and those working most closely with them”

    Among all the international organizations who wrote about their involvement (the ALNAP paper you mentioned included), our own paper was, incredibly, the only one that interviewed the Haitians who made up 95% of the effort. It was the only one that passed blind peer review in a top-tier venue, too. We also concluded, in that report:
    “Maintain a ten-to-one local-to-international workforce”
    “Do not elicit information for which there is not the capacity to respond”

    If technology was deployed differently following Typhoon Haiyan, then they were doing this against the recommendations of the most experienced people in this area. Shame on them.

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