How we share information and communicate, in our personal lives, within and between corporations, governments and, in my case, humanitarian aid organizations, is changing at a super-fast pace. For some it’s hard to keep up, for others it’s not moving fast enough. My mother just started using a mobile phone. I greet her with “welcome to the 21st century Mum…!” I live in Bangkok, as the crow flies it’s just over 7,000kms from her in Melbourne, but she texts me a couple of times a week to check up on me. I love it. While she has a smart phone, she’s not quite ready for sending emails, befriending me on Facebook, following my tweets or pinning some interesting photos, but we’re getting there….

I work for the United Nations in emergency response. Globally our poor people and planet are experiencing an acute increase in catastrophic emergencies. The trend doesn’t seem to be slowing, with pain and suffering all across the world including in Syria, Jordan, Myanmar, Japan and the Philippines, and millions of people are being affected.

My bite-sized contribution is working on communications with conflict or disaster affected communities. It’s an emerging sector in the emergency aid game; listening to people in need is new. Well, I’m lying, it’s not new, we’ve done it for a while, we just haven’t bothered to do it well, and at times not at all. There’s many an argument that says when thousands of people are suffering just dump the food, tents and medicine and don’t ask too many questions. “We don’t have time”. It’s taken the onset of, not a natural disaster, but the digital age to make the humanitarian emergency sector wake up. When it comes to using the technology around us, we’ve fallen behind.

People are screaming out for help and in many cases they are using new technologies to be heard. But in so many cases we’re not listening or we don’t know how to receive or process the information we get.

In so many ways, I see my mum as advanced as the system I work in. We’re getting there…

At least once a week since late last year I either tell or hear the same story of a young Filipino girl who managed to send an urgent appeal on Twitter asking for help for her mother and grandmother who were both trapped by surging floodwaters in the Filipino capital, Manila. “Can anybody help?” Within minutes there was a response and her family was saved. New media, new technology, new ways of communicating are all around us; we need to understand and embrace them. I still have hope for my mum, as I do for the aid sector.

Recent disasters in Japan and the Philippines have highlighted how social media and mobile networks are having a transformative impact on disaster responses, both raising new opportunities and creating new challenges for organising and implementing “traditional” disaster responses. After cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 aid providers distributed radios for survivors to access relevant information on weather and how to treat diseases. Telecommunications companies in the Philippines provided free SMS for people affected by last year’s cyclone, people were using Twitter to call for help and equipment. In Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami an entire emergency radio station was hosted in a shipping container.

More and more technological tools, ‘toys’ I call them, are coming onto the market and, put simply, save lives in emergencies. One well-known online tool is called Ushahidi, meaning “testimony” in Swahili. It’s a website that was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2008. Crisis Mappers is another online network. They use “mobile & web-based applications, participatory maps & crowd sourced data, aerial & satellite imagery, geospatial platforms, advanced visualization, live simulation, and computational & statistical models to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies”. We are talking aaaaaa lot of data, aaaaaa lot of people and aaaaaa lot of chaos during the onset of a horrific crisis like the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Google’s ‘Person Finder’ helps people reconnect with missing friends and family in the aftermath of disasters while Facebook’s ‘Disaster Relief’ page supports efforts to help humanitarians respond to crises. While they are all far from perfect, they often lack functionalities or features that make them reliable or scalable, they are a step in the right direction.

There’s a growing movement of active ‘non-traditional’ aid workers out there and we need to better harness their energy. The humanitarian aid sector needs to work with these guys, explore their innovative toys, test them, redevelop them and make them work for us.

Maybe I’ll have my mum chat with my employers to get them on board a bit quicker?


Stewart Davies consults to the United Nations as a communications specialist working with people affected by conflict or natural disasters. He is also the Foreign Correspondent for Small Giant’s (Dumbo Feather’s parent company) work in South East Asia. Follow him at @stewartjdavies.

Photo by Steve Bozak.