Tag Archives: service

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.

Become a (Social Media) Data Donor and Save a Life

I was recently in New York where I met up with my colleague Fernando Diaz from Microsoft Research. We were discussing the uses of social media in humanitarian crises and the various constraints of social media platforms like Twitter vis-a-vis their Terms of Service. And then this occurred to me: we have organ donation initiatives and organ donor cards that many of us carry around in our wallets. So why not become a “Data Donor” as well in the event of an emergency? After all, it has long been recognized that access to information during a crisis is as important as access to food, water, shelter and medical aid.

This would mean having a setting that gives others during a crisis the right (for a limited time) to use your public tweets or Facebook status updates for the ex-pressed purpose of supporting emergency response operations, such as live crisis maps. Perhaps switching this setting on would also come with the provision that the user confirms that s/he will not knowingly spread false or misleading information as part of their data donation. Of course, the other option is to simply continue doing what many have been doing all along, i.e., keep using social media updates for humanitarian response regardless of whether or not they violate the various Terms of Service.

How to Crowdsource Crisis Response

I recently had the distinct pleasure of giving this year’s keynote address at the Global Communications Forum (#RCcom on Twitter) organized by the Interna-tional Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The conversations that followed were thoroughly fruitful and enjoyable.

Like many other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC is thinking hard about how to manage the social media challenge. In 2010, this study carried out by the American Red Cross (ARC) found that the public increasingly expects humanitarian organizations to respond to pleas for help posted on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. The question is, how in the world are humanitarian organizations supposed to handle this significant increase in “customer service” requests? Even during non-emergencies, ARC’s Facebook page receives a large number of comments on a daily basis many of which solicit replies. This figure escalates significantly during crises. So what to do?

The answer, in my opinion, requires some organizational change. Clearly, the dramatic rise in customer service requests posted on social media platforms cannot be managed through existing organizational structures and work flows. Moreover, the vast majority of posted requests don’t reflect life threatening situations. In other words, responses to many requests don’t require professional emergency responders. So humanitarian organizations should consider taking a two-pronged strategy to address the social media challenge. The first is to upgrade their “customer service systems” and the second is to connect these systems with local networks of citizen crisis responders.

How do large private sector companies deal with the social media challenge? Well, some obviously do better than others. (Incidentally, this question was a recurring topic of conversation at the Same Wavelength conference in London where I spoke after Geneva). This explains why I recommended that my ICRC colleagues consider various social media customer service models used in the private sector and identify examples of positive deviance.

The latest innovation in the customer service space was just launched at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. TalkTo “allows consumers to send text messages to any business and get quick responses to questions, feedback, and more.” As TechCrunch writes, “no one wants to wait on the phone, and email can be slow as well. SMS Messaging is a natural form of communication these days and the most efficient for simple questions. It makes sense to bring this communication to businesses.” If successful, I wonder whether TalkTo will add Twitter and Facebook to their service as other communication media.

Some companies leverage crowdsourcing, like Best Buy’s TwelpForce. Over time, Best Buy “found that with some good foundational guideposts and training tools, the crowd began to self-organize and govern itself.  Leaders in the space popped up as coaches, or mentors – and pretty soon they had a really good support network in place.”

On the humanitarian side, the American Red Cross has begun to leverage their trained volunteers to manage responses to the organization’s official Facebook page, for example. With some good foundational guideposts and training tools, they should be able to scale this solution. In some ways, one could say that humanitarian organizations are increasingly required to play the role of “telephone” operator. So I’d be very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers on alternative, social media approaches to customer service in the private sector. If you know of any innovative ones, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

The second strategy that humanitarian organizations need to consider is linking this new customer service system to networks of citizen crisis responders. An “operator” on the ARC Facebook page, for example, would triage the incoming posts by “pushing” them into different bins according to topic and urgency. Posts that don’t reflect a life-threatening situation but still require operational response could simply be forwarded to local citizen crisis responders. The rest can be re-routed to professional emergency responders. Geo-fenced alerts from crisis mapping platforms could also play an important role in this respect.

One should remember that the majority of crisis responses are “crowdsourced” by definition since the real first responders are always local communities. For example, “it is well known that in case of earthquakes, such as the one that happened in Mexico City, the assistance to the victims comes first of all from the other survivors [...]” (Gilbert 1998). In fact, estimates suggest that, “no more than 10 per cent of survival in emergencies can be contributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hillhorst 2004). So why not connect humanitarian customer service systems to local citizen crisis responders and thereby make the latter’s response more targeted and efficient rather than simply ad hoc? I’ve used the term “crowdfeeding” to describe this idea in previous blog posts like this one and this one. We basically need a Match.com for citizen based crisis response in which both problems and solutions are crowdsourced.

So where are these “new” citizen crisis responders to come from? How about leveraging existing networks like Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), the UN Volunteer system (UNVs), Red Cross volunteer networks and platforms like Red Cross Volunteer Match? Why not make use of existing training materials like FEMA’s online courses? Universities could also promote the idea of student crisis responders and offer credit for relevant courses.

Update: New app helps Queensland coordinate volunteers.