Tag Archives: Relief

How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response (and Vice Versa)

Update: The most recent example of the link between disobedience and disaster response is Occupy #Sandy. As the New York Times and ABC News have noted,  “the movement’s connections and ‘altruistic drive’ has led to them being some-what more effective in the northwestern Hurricane Sandy relief movement than ‘larger, more established charity groups.'”As noted here, “the coordinators of the Occupy Sandy relief effort have been working in conjunction with supply distributors, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, while relying on the National Guard for security.” Many describe the movement’s role in response to Sandy as instrumental. The Occupy movement also worked with New York City’s office and other parts of the government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Occupy for their invaluable efforts: “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You guys are great [...]. You really are making a difference.” The Occupy Sandy documentary below is well worth watching. I also recommend reading this blog post.

When Philippine President Joseph Estrada was forced from office following widespread protests in 2001, he complained bitterly that “the popular uprising against him was a coup de text.” Indeed, the mass protests had been primarily organized via SMS. Fast forward to 2012 and the massive floods that re-cently paralyzed the country’s capital. Using mobile phones and social media, ordinary Filipinos crowdsourced the disaster response efforts on their own without any help from the government.

In 2010, hundreds of forest fires ravaged Russia. Within days, volunteers based in Moscow launched their own crowdsourced disaster relief effort, which was seen by many as both more effective and visible than the Kremlin’s response. These volunteers even won high profile awards in recognition of their efforts (picture below). Some were also involved in the crowdsourced response to the recent Krymsk floods. Like their Egyptian counterparts, many Russians are par-ticularly adept at using social media and mobile technologies given the years of experience they have in digital activism and civil resistance.

At the height of last year’s Egyptian revolution, a female activist in Cairo stated the following: “We use Facebook to schedule our protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world.” Several weeks later, Egyptian activists used social networking platforms to organize & coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Tripoli to provide relief to Libyan civilians affected by the fighting.

The same is true of Iranians, as witnessed during the Green Revolution in 2009. Should anyone be surprised that young, digitally savvy Iranians took the lead in using social media and mobile technologies to crowdsource relief efforts in response to the recent earthquakes in the country’s northern region? Given their distrust of the Iranian regime, should anyone be surprised that they opted to deliver the aid directly to the disaster-affected communities themselves?

Whether they are political activists on one day and volunteer humanitarians on another, the individuals behind the efforts described above use the same tools to mobilize and coordinate. And they build social capital in the process—strong and weak ties—regardless of whether they are responding to repressive policies or “natural’ disasters. Social capital facilitates collective action, which is key to political movements and humanitarian response—both on and offline. While some individuals are more politically inclined, others are more drawn to helping those in need during a disaster. Either way, these individuals are already part of overlapping social networks.

In fact, some activists may actually consider their involvement in volunteer-based humanitarian response efforts as an indirect form of nonviolent protest and civil resistance. According to The New York Times, volunteers who responded to Iran’s deadly double earthquake were “a group of young Iranians—a mix of hipsters, off-road motor club members and children of affluent families [...]“. They “felt like rebels with a cause [...], energized by anger over widespread accusations that Iran’s official relief organizations were not adequately helping survivors [...].” Interestingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader actually endorsed this type of private, independent delivery of aid that Iranian volunteers had undertaken. He may want to think that over.

The faster and more ably citizen volunteers can respond to “natural” disasters, the more backlash there may be against governments who are not seen to respond adequately to these disasters. Their legitimacy and capacity to govern may come into question by more sectors of the population. Both Beijing and Iran have already been heavily criticized for their perceived failure in responding to the recent floods and earthquakes. More importantly, perhaps, these crowd-sourced humanitarian efforts may serve to boost the confidence of activists. As one Iranian activist noted, “By organizing our own aid convoy, we showed that we can manage ourselves [...]. We don’t need others to tell us what to do.”

In neighboring Pakistan, the government failed catastrophically in its response to the devastating cyclone that struck East Pakistan in 1970. To this day, Cyclone Bhola remains the most deadly cyclone on record, killing some 500,000 people. A week after the hazard struck, the Pakistani President acknowledged that his government had made “mistakes in its handling of the relief efforts due to a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.” The lack of timely and coordinated government response resulted in massive protests agains the state, which served as an important trigger for the war of independence that led to the creation of Bangladesh. (Just imagine, SMS wasn’t even around then).

Given a confluence of grievances, “natural” disasters may potentially provide a momentary window of opportunity to catalyze regime change. This is perhaps more likely when those citizens responding to a disaster also happen to be savvy digital activists (and vice versa).

Crowdsourcing Disaster Response in Iran: How Volunteers Bypassed the State

The double earthquakes that recently struck Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province killed over 300 people and left thousands more homeless. Iranians are par-ticularly adept at using Facebook and other social media platforms. So I was hardly surprised to learn that Iranian journalists launched a Facebook group to collect and and share reliable information related to the earthquake’s impact. Some of these journalists also visited the disaster-struck region to document the deva-station and aid in the relief efforts.

Existing Facebook groups were also used to bring help to those in need. One such group, called Female Equals Male, encouraged followers to donate blood at centers across the country. An Iranian who works at one of these centers was taken aback by the response: “… it was the first time that I have ever seen people being so eager to donate blood. It has always been us, pushing, advertising and asking people to do so.” Female Equals Male already had over 140,000 “likes” before the earthquake.

Like their Egyptian counterparts who crowdsourced volunteer convoys into Libya last year, young Iranians also organized caravans to bring relief to victims of the earthquake in the north of the country. They spontaneously organized a charity effort using SMS, Facebook and phone calls to collect money and relief supplies. “But instead of handing over their collection to the Iranian Red Crescent Society —which is close to the government—as the authorities had asked in the state media, these youths were determined to transport it themselves to the most remote hill villages ravaged by the earthquakes […].” And so they did.

There seem to be more and more examples like this one occurring–ordinary citizens and volunteers taking (disaster response) matters into their own hands:

Of course, this phenomenon is hardly new. First responders, by definition, are the disaster affected population themselves. What is new is that these people-centered crowdsourced efforts are increasingly public and easier to coordinate thanks to social networking platforms and mobile technologies. “In Iran, where the state is involved in all layers of society, it is exceptional for a group of young people to organize a public effort of disaster relief” (NYTimes). As I have hinted in previous blog posts, this ability to mobilize, organize and coordinate can have important political ramifications.

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.”