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New tech changed disaster response in Haiti-but what are lessons learnt?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 14 Jan 2011 19:15 GMT
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It has almost become the stuff of legend how new communications technology applied during the Haiti earthquake relief efforts has changed humanitarian disaster response.

On the one hand you had the volunteer-based, technology-focused community of crisismappers and social media experts, on the other the world of established aid and United Nations agencies - essentially a "homemade raft meets supertanker" scenario.

With these two sides thrown together with the same mission – to help survivors - the relief effort became a living laboratory for the use of short code messages (SMS), interactive online reports, crisis maps and collaboration between radio stations and mobile phone users.

This week, several groups have published reports reviewing the role of information technology and social media in disasters. They agree on a crucial point: there is an urgent need to form trusted partnerships that will help both sides to work together more efficiently and make the most of each other's capacities to help disaster survivors.

The Knight Foundation's "Media, Information Systems and Communities - Lessons learnt from Haiti", published in cooperation with the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) network, highlights three key observations:

- traditional humanitarian organisations were often open to new technologies but remain nervous about the implications of information and power sharing through crowdsourcing and other new media platforms

- joint humanitarian communities demonstrated that there were many beneficial ways to use digital media in a crisis, particularly through texting (SMS)

- radio, Haiti's dominant medium, was the most effective tool for serving the needs of the public, for example by alerting families to the whereabouts of missing members and pointing survivors to hospitals and sources of water. Even though most Haitian radio stations were knocked off air by the quake, one station - Signal FM - managed to continue broadcasting to nearly 3 million throughout the crisis.

The report found that despite the successful deployment of crowdsourcing techniques, open source mapping, SMS and other resources, there were tensions and a lack of common language between the volunteer community and the world of large international organisations.

INSTITUTIONAL BARRIERS

Some organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have strict rules of confidentiality. While this allows the ICRC to play a useful role in conflict situations it can be at odds with the culture of the open-source community, which emphasises spontaneity and transparency.

"Haiti constituted a learning opportunity, not a perfect model," the Knight Foundation's report said.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is a CDAC member and deployed its Emergency Information Service (EIS) in Haiti a few days after the earthquake.

Humanitarian technology company InSTEDD worked with the EIS and Digicel, one of Haiti's biggest cell phone services, and other partners to develop an short code system (SMS) to send out free text messages with public health, shelter and safety information to Haitians who subscribed to it.

The Red Cross teamed up with another cell phone service, Voila, to send similar SMS messages to quake survivors.

There were limits to using such SMS systems though, the report noted. Some accounts suggest that messages only reached their destinations about 60 to 70 percent of the time. The SMS system sometimes frustrated Haitians, who understandably hoped for quick responses to their requests for help via text, even though these services were neither intended nor promoted as such.

Ushahidi, the open-source platform used in Haiti to map crisis data, this week also released preliminary findings from an independent evaluation of the Ushahidi Haiti Platform (UHP).

It noted that Ushahidi was "remarkably relevant" to key stakeholders, such as the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Coastguard, which used the platform to retrieve emergency information about people who required immediate help.

But it also found that “the extent of information use was limited by a number of factors including stakeholder awareness of UHP, information content and classification of UHP map entries, familiarity with crisis informatics tools, accuracy of information and attitudes of some stakeholders toward social media."

LACK OF COMMON STANDARDS

Another report issued jointly by the ICT4Peace Foundation, the Berkman Center at Harvard, and Georgia Tech, examines the lessons learned from Haiti and elsewhere regarding the role of  information technology in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, peacekeeping and crisis response.

The authors concede that Haiti was a turning point in the use of information technology in disasters.

“However, vital lessons for humanitarian aid and first response clearly identified in the Asian Boxing Day tsunami response remain unheeded,” the report said. “Disaster-affected communities remain largely passive recipients of information, having to deal with, amidst significant trauma, competing information on aid delivery and services.”

As an example the report - "Peacebuilding in the Information Age: Sifting Hype from Reality" – noted that early in the Haiti relief effort, multiple websites and other resources were dedicated to finding missing persons.

However, institutional reluctance by donor agencies and others to share common standards or resources led to data fragmentation and information silos, and this meant duplication and wasted efforts.

And it makes the point that technology can neither provide a “quick fix” nor be a solution in itself, bound inextricably as it is to political, social and economic processes.

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