How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive

“Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive — And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help” is an excellent report pub-lished by the BBC World Service Trust earlier this year. It is a follow up to the BBC’s 2008 study “Left in the Dark: The Unmet Need for Information in Humanitarian Emergencies.” Both reports are absolute must-reads. I highlight the most important points from the 2012 publication below.

Are Humanitarians Being Left in the Dark?

The disruptive impact of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is hardly a surprise. Back in 2007, researchers studying the use of social media during “forest fires in California concluded that ‘these emergent uses of social media are pre-cursors of broader future changes to the institutional and organizational arrangements of disaster response.’” While the main danger in 2008 was that disaster-affected communities would continue to be left in the dark since humanitarian organizations were not prioritizing information delivery, in 2012, “it may now be the humanitarian agencies themselves […] who risk being left in the dark.” Why? “Growing access to new technologies make it more likely that those affected by disaster will be better placed to access information and communicate their own needs.” Question is: “are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?” Indeed, “one of the consequences of greater access to, and the spread of, communications technology is that communities now expect—and demand—interaction.”

Monitoring Rumors While Focusing on Interaction and Listening

The BBC Report invites humanitarian organizations to focus on meaningful interaction with disaster-affected communities, rather than simply on message delivery. “Where agencies do address the question of communication with affected communities, this still tends to be seen as a question of relaying infor-mation (often described as ‘messaging’) to an unspecified ‘audience’ through a channel selected as appropriate (usually local radio). It is to be delivered when the agency thinks that it has something to say, rather than in response to demand. In an environment in which […] interaction is increasingly expected, this approach is becoming more and more out of touch with community needs. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and potential of many technological tools particularly Twitter, which work on a real time many-to-many information model rather than a simple broadcast.”

Two-way communication with disaster-affected communities requires two-way listening. Without listening, there can be no meaningful communication. “Listening benefits agencies, as well as those with whom they communicate. Any agency that does not monitor local media—including social media—for misinformation or rumors about their work or about important issues, such as cholera awareness risks, could be caught out by the speed at which information can move.” This is an incredibly important point. Alas, humanitarian organ-izations have not caught up with recent advances in social computing and big data analytics. This is one of the main reasons I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI); i.e., to spearhead the development of next-generation humani-tarian technology solutions.

Combining SMS with Geofencing for Emergency Alerts

Meanwhile, in Haiti, “phone company Digicel responded to the 2010 cholera outbreak by developing methods that would send an SMS to anyone who travelled through an identified cholera hotspot, alerting them to the dangers and advising on basic precautions.” The later is an excellent example of geofencing in action. That said, “while responders tend to see communication as a process either of delivering information (‘messaging’) or extracting it, disaster survivors seem to see the ability to communicate and the process of communication itself as every bit as important as the information delivered.”

Communication & Community-Based Disaster Response Efforts

As the BBC Report notes, “there is also growing evidence that communities in emergencies are adept at leveraging communications technology to organize their own responses.” This is indeed true as these recent examples demonstrate:

“Communications technology is empowering first responders in new and extremely potent ways that are, at present, little understood by international humanitarians. While aid agencies hesitate, local communities are using commu-nications technology to reshape the way they prepare for and respond to emergencies.” There is a definite payoff to those agencies that employ an “integrated approach to communicating and engaging with disaster affected communities […]” since they are “viewed more positively by beneficiaries than those that [do] not.” Indeed, “when disaster survivors are able to communicate with aid agencies their perceptions become more positive.”

Using New Technologies to Manage Local Feedback Mechanisms

So why don’t more agencies follow suite? Many are concerned that establishing feedback systems will prove impossible to manage let alone sustain. They fear that “they would not be able to answer questions asked, that they [would] not have the skills or capacity to manage the anticipated volume of inputs and that they [would be] unequipped to deal with people who would (it is assumed) be both angry and critical.”

I wonder whether these aid agencies realize that many private sector companies have feedback systems that engage millions of customers everyday; that these companies are using social media and big data analytics to make this happen. Some are even crowdsourcing their customer service support. It is high time that the humanitarian community realize that the challenges they face aren’t that unique and that solutions have already been developed in other sectors.

There are only a handful of examples of positive deviance vis-a-vis the setting up of feedback systems in the humanitarian space. Oxfam found that simply com-bining the “automatic management of SMS systems” with “just one dedicated local staff member […] was enough to cope with demand.” When the Danish Refugee Council set up their own SMS complaints mechanism, they too expected be overwhelmed with criticisms. “To their surprise, more than half of the SMS’s they received via their feedback system […] have been positive, with people thanking the agency for their assistance […].” This appears to be a pattern since “many other agencies reported receiving fewer ‘difficult’ questions than anticipated.”

Naturally, “a systematic and resourced approach for feedback” is needed either way. Interestingly, “many aid agencies are in fact now running de facto feedback and information line systems without realizing it. […] most staff who work directly with disaster survivors will be asked for contact details by those they interact with, and will give their own personal mobile numbers.” These ad hoc “systems” are hardly efficient, well-resourced or systematic, however.

User-Generated Content, Representativeness and Ecosystems

Obviously, user-generated content shared via social media may not be represen-tative. “But, as costs fall and coverage increases, all the signs are that usage will increase rapidly in rural areas and among poorer people. […] As one Somali NGO staff member commented […], ‘they may not have had lunch — but they’ll have a mobile phone.’” Moreover, there is growing evidence that individuals turn to social media platforms for the first time as a result of crisis. “In Thailand, for example, the use of social media increased 20% when the 2010 floods began–with fairly equal increases found in metropolitan Bangkok and in rural provinces.”

While the vast majority of Haitians in Port-au-Prince are not on Twitter, “the city’s journalists overwhelmingly are and and see it as an essential source of news and updates.” Since most Haitians listen to radio, “they are, in fact, the indirect beneficiaries of Twitter information systems.” Another interesting fact: “In Kenya, 27% of radio listeners tune in via their mobile phones.” This highlights the importance of an ecosystem approach when communicating with disaster-affected communities. On a related note, recent statistics reveal that individuals in developing countries spend about 17.5% of their income on ICTs compared to just 1.5% in developing countries.

2 responses to “How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive

  1. Great blog – and good point about humanitarian agencies being the ones who will be left in the dark.

    In regards to two-way communication with disaster-affected communities – have you seen the next phase of work the Red Cross are doing in Haiti? In addition to the use of SMS technology, the Red Cross have developed a free-to-call automated informational telephone line which also uses an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system to collect information. By simply dialling 733, people are able to get information on topics such as healthcare, cholera treatment and prevention, and blood donation and are also able to take part in surveys to give their opinions on the work that the Red Cross is doing in the country. See http://www.humanitarianinnovation.org/projects/large-grants/ifrc-haiti for more info.

  2. Thanks for the insights! One question regarding ‘Combining SMS with Geofencing for Emergency Alerts’: I understood elsewhere that GPS positions from the cell network was never made available to external operators, be them humanitarian. Haiti obviously has been an exception in that regard. That appliesto geofenced alkerts too I believe: Is that right?
    The impossibility to use GPS positions for incoming SMS from the crowd, as ethical as it may be, alsoseems to be a huge limitation in many projects and contexts, as it requires then to have a serious human intervention when trying to geolocalize SMS and alike. Any thought on that?

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