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Articles
9 January 2019

Digital aid

While the use of technology in disaster relief still has a way to go, aid agencies are moving in the right direction

Written by Stewart Davies

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

How we share information and communicate, in our personal lives, within and between corporations, governments—and in my case, humanitarian aid organisations—is changing at a super-fast pace.

For some, it’s hard to keep up. My mother just started using a mobile phone. I live in Bangkok, just over 7000 kilometres from her in Melbourne, but she texts a couple of times a week to check up on me. While she has a smart phone, she’s not quite ready to send emails, befriend me on Facebook or follow my tweets, but we’re getting there…

I work for the United Nations in emergency response. Globally, we are experiencing an acute increase in catastrophic emergencies—both man-made and natural. The trend doesn’t seem to be slowing—from Syria, Jordan, Myanmar and Japan to the Philippines, millions of people are in pain.

My bite-sized contribution is working on communications within conflict or disaster affected communities. It’s an emerging sector in the aid-relief game. Actually, it’s not new; we just haven’t bothered to do it well up until now. Often when thousands of people are suffering, we just dump the food, tents and medicine and don’t ask too many questions. When it comes to using the technology around us, we’ve fallen behind.

People are screaming out for help. In many cases, new technologies are helping them to be heard. But in so many cases we’re not listening, or, we don’t know how to process the information they are sending. In many ways, the system I work in is as advanced as my mum. We’re getting there…

There is a story of a young girl who managed to send an urgent appeal via Twitter for her mother and grandmother who were both trapped by surging floodwaters last August in the Filipino capital, Manila. “Can anybody help?” she tweeted. Within minutes, her family was saved. During the cyclone in the Philippines last year, telecommunications companies also provided free SMS. New media, new technology, new ways of communicating are all around us; we need to understand and embrace them. I am hopeful.

One well-known example is called Ushahidi, meaning “testimony” in Swahili. The website was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2008 post-election fallout, and is now used globally to gather information from the public during emergencies. Crisis Mappers, another online network, uses mobile and web applications, crowd-sourced data and maps, aerial imagery and live simulation to power rapid response to humanitarian crises. We are talking a lot of data, a lot of people and a lot of chaos during a horrific crisis like the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Google’s Person Finder, used during the recent Colorado floods, helps people reconnect with missing friends and family, while Facebook’s Disaster Relief page constantly updates to keep people informed. These platforms often lack the functionality or features that make them consistently effective, but they are a step in the right direction.

There’s a growing movement of non-traditional aid workers out there. We need to harness their energy. If the humanitarian sector can work with these guys, explore their innovative toys, test them, redevelop them and make them work, we will have an incredibly powerful new way to deal with global crises.

 

Stewart Davies

Stewart Davies is a consultant communications specialist to the United Nations, working with people affected by conflict or natural disasters. He is also the Foreign Correspondent for Small Giants (Dumbo Feather’s parent company) in South East Asia.

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