Tag Archives: Coordination

Crowdsourcing Community-Based Disaster Relief in Indonesia

I just came across a very neat example of crowdsourced, community-based crisis response in this excellent report by the BBC World Service Trust: “Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive—And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help.” I plan to provide a detailed summary of this important report in a forthcoming blog post. In the meantime, this very neat example below (taken directly from said BBC report) is well worth sharing.

“In Indonesia during the eruption of Mount Merapi in November 2010, a local radio community known as Jalin Merapi began to share information via Twitter and used the network to organize community-based relief to over 700 shelters on the side of the mountain […].”

“The Jalin Merapi network was founded following an eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano on Java, Indonesia in 2006. Three community radio stations who felt that the reporting of the eruption by the mainstream media had been inaccurate and unhelpful to those affected joined up with a group of local NGOs and other radio networks to produce accurate information on volcanic activity for those living on the mountain’s slopes. By the time of the 2010 eruption the network involved 800 volunteers, a presence online, on Twitter and on Face-book, and a hotline.”

“During the first eruption on 26 October 2010, the team found that their online accounts–especially Twitter–had become extremely busy. Ten volunteers were assigned to manage the information flow: sorting incoming information (they agreed 27 hashtags to share information), cross referencing it and checking for veracity. For example, when one report came in about a need for food for 6,000 internally displaced people, the team checked the report for veracity then redistributed it as a request for help, a request re-tweeted by followers of the Jalin Merapi account. Within 30 minutes, the same volunteer called and said that enough food had now been supplied, and asked people to stop sending food – a message that was distributed by the team immediately.”

“Interestingly, two researchers who analyzed information systems during the Merapi eruption found that many people believed traditional channels such as television to be ‘less satisfying’. In many cases they felt that television did not provide proper information at the time, but created panic instead.” [...] “The success of initiatives such as the Jalin Merapi is based on the levels of trust, community interaction and person-to-person relationships on which participants can build. While technology facilitated and amplified these, it did not replace them.” [...] “The work of Jalin Merapi continues today, using the time between eruptions to raise awareness of dangers and help communities plan for the next incident.”

Towards an SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response

Picture this: it’s October 7, 2011, and a major hazard hits a highly vulnerable population resulting in a devastating disaster. The entire humanitarian response community mobilizes within 48 hours. Days later, the cell phone network is back up and dozens of SMS systems are activated by large and small organizations. Two or three of these systems use short codes thanks to rapid collaboration with the country’s national telecommunication companies. The other SMS systems all use long codes.

That picture concerns me, a lot. The technology community’s response to Haiti has demonstrated that using SMS to communicate with disaster affected communities can save lives, hundreds of lives. Humanitarian organizations and NGOs have all taken note and nothing will prevent them from setting up their own SMS systems in the near future. This wouldn’t worry me if coordination wasn’t already a major challenge in this space.

Let me elaborate on the above picture.

Picture further that one organization decides to send out regular SMS broadcasts to the disaster affected communities to improve their situational awareness and prevent panic. This is an important service during the first few days of a disaster. But imagine that this organization does not provide a way for users receiving this information to unsubscribe or to specify exactly what type of information they would like and for which locations. Next suppose that three NGOs set up long codes to do the same. Now imagine that two major organizations independently set up an alerts SMS system, asking individuals to text in their location and most urgent needs.

This is an information disaster in the making for communities in crisis.

So what are we going to do to prevent the above picture from turning into reality? The group Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) is probably best placed to support a coordinating role in this space. But before we even get to this, our own community should start drafting an “SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response” for ourselves. I can think of no better way to start the process by using distributed cognition (aka crowdsourcing). This blog post on lessons learned and best practices may be informative as well.

Here are a few ideas to begin with:

  • Set up a complaints mechanism
  • Do not duplicate existing national SMS systems
  • Set up a single clearing house for all outgoing SMS broadcasts
  • Ensure that SMS messages are demand driven in terms of content
  • Enable receivers of Disaster SMS’s to unsubscribe and to specify alert type and location

There are likely dozens more points we could add. So please feel free to do so in the comments section below. I will then create a more structured Google Doc out of your replies and send this out for further peer reviewing.

Patrick Philippe Meier