LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Information and communication technologies can save lives in emergencies and help communities prepare better for disasters, but many of the most vulnerable people are still unable to benefit from them, the Red Cross said on Thursday.
In its annual World Disasters Report, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) charts the revolutionary impact of technology on humanitarian aid, but also explores the barriers to its adoption.
From text message warnings about coming storms and mobile apps telling survivors where to find relief, to online services that map needs in crises and digital collection of data on health or displaced families, the global expansion of mobile telephones and the internet has enabled two-way communication between people hit by disasters and the aid workers who help them.
"Communities are, for example, alerted faster of, and better prepared for, impending cyclones or tsunami, and they are able to hold humanitarians accountable for their actions," the report said.
But it also warned that marginalised groups may not have the money or the knowledge to take advantage of this digital revolution.
"Those least likely to have access to technology – the poor, the uneducated, women – are also the most vulnerable to disasters," wrote IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta in an introduction to the report. "Local organisations and even governments in poor countries, which are most likely to be the first responders when disaster strikes, are also least likely to be able to take advantage of technologies."
Policy makers in some developing nations, however, have started using technology to help their citizens. In the Philippines, for example, the government promoted a twitter hashtag to spread information about a deadly typhoon last December, and posted information about shelters and emergency relief on web pages accessible from mobile phones, the report said.
But relying too heavily on communications infrastructure during and after disasters can be a mistake, as it may be put out of action by earthquakes and extreme weather, the report noted. There are also unresolved issues around protecting people's privacy and how information is used, it added.
Joelle Tanguy, the IFRC's under secretary general for humanitarian values and diplomacy, told Thomson Reuters Foundation the aid community is still only beginning to deploy technology effectively. "Our message is to take it on with a principled humanitarian view - understand its limitations, and make sure you are not forgetting the most vulnerable," she said.
Globally, there are now 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions and more than 2 billion mobile broadband internet subscriptions. But those figures mask a stark digital divide. The report noted that only 6 percent of people in low-income countries used the internet in 2011, and just 42 percent had a mobile subscription.
"Access to technology in the most remote, most rural and least developed economies is really the key," Tanguy said, urging more collaboration between governments, the private sector, civil society and the media to provide that access at low cost.
Many aid agencies are already working on innovative projects with mobile phone firms, weather forecasters, or technology experts who have set up online platforms to pull in messages from disaster zones and conflict areas, and map the location of the senders.
The IFRC, for example, has partnered with telecoms company Trilogy to develop the TERA SMS system, enabling 3 million people in Haiti to receive hurricane warnings and disease prevention advice. The system has recently been set up in Sierra Leone, and the Red Cross hopes to launch it in 40 countries.
"But we can’t do it alone, we need the private and public sectors to work with us,” said Ed Happ, the IFRC's global chief information officer.
OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE AID
There is also a challenge in getting humanitarians to listen to, and act on the information coming in via new technologies from people on the ground, the report said.
"Advances in technology should be used to develop extensive and reliable feedback loops between humanitarian actors and the individuals they are serving, but there must also be the commitment and capacity to use this feedback to improve programming," it said.
Tanguy said some donor governments do not always provide funding for such activities in disaster relief, and are missing an opportunity to improve aid.
"Governments can really drive efficiency in humanitarian response by ensuring they are better informed by the viewpoint of the beneficiary communities, and that's where technology can help," she said.
The report highlighted a lack of comprehensive evaluation of technology in humanitarian assistance, with much of the evidence anecdotal so far.
Most technological innovations still need to be tested and scaled up to show how they can benefit aid work, the report noted. And it urged the development of new ways to make sense of digital information, and apply it on the ground.
"Ultimately what matters is not technology, but how it is used to save and improve people’s lives,” Geleta said in a statement.
The World Disasters Report 2013 also provides a statistical overview of disasters in 2012, and how they compare with annual data for the decade from 2003. Few large-scale disasters occurred in low-income countries in 2012, making it the least deadly of the past 10 years. Check out the key figures in our 5 Facts on Disasters in 2012.