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Posts Tagged ‘agencies’

The use of social media and new technologies in disaster and crisis situations will likely be framed forevermore as ‘Before Haiti’ (BH) and ‘After Haiti’ (AH). The terrible earthquakes that devastated the country and the resulting flood of humanitarian interventions that followed mark the moment that the world woke up to the role that new technology and new media can and do play in the immediate local response to a crisis as well as the ongoing emergency response once international volunteers and aid organizations arrive to the scene.

Still left in the dark? How people in emergencies use communication to survive — and how humanitarian agencies can help,’ is a new policy briefing by BBC Media Action. It does a fantastic job of highlighting the ways that new media is changing disaster response and the fact that the humanitarian industry is not doing enough to keep pace.

The briefing asks: ‘Are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?’ As the report shows, the answer is ‘not really’.

Many humanitarian agencies continue to see ‘communication’ as something done to raise money or boost the profile of their own efforts, says the report. Yet the sector increasingly needs a clear, strategic focus that responds to the information and communication needs of disaster-affected populations. ‘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.’ Communicating with affected populations can improve programming and response, not to mention, as highlighted in the Listening Project and referred to in the BBC report, ‘Listening is seen as an act of respect.’

The briefing is not one-sided, however, and it does a good job of understanding some of the common perceptions around the use of new technologies. There is ICT and social media hype on the one hand (often the position of international ICT specialists, based on very little hard evidence). And there is strong questioning of the value of these tools at all on the other hand (often the position of aid workers who are turned off by the hype and want to see proven practice if they are to consider investing time and resources in new ICTs). The briefing paper provides examples that may serve to convince those who are still unconvinced or uninterested.

Many of us see the reality that social media tools are still quite out of reach of the poorest members of a community or country. But writing new media and technologies off entirely is ‘too crude an analysis,’ says the briefing paper, ‘and one that is being challenged by data from the field.’ In Thailand, for example, use of social media increased by 20 percent in both metropolitan and rural areas when the 2010 floods began. ‘Communities now expect — and demand — interaction,’ the paper emphasizes.

Throughout the paper there are good examples of ways that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster local individuals and companies are quickly creating and rolling out communication platforms that are more relevant, feasible and sustainable than some of the initiatives that have been led by international agencies.

An important point that the report makes is that the most successful use of new media in disaster response combines multiple communication channels — new and old — allowing information to flow in and out, to and from different populations with different media habits and levels of access. For example, local journalists and radio stations may pull information from Twitter and Facebook and broadcast it via the radio. They may also be broadcasting online, meaning that they not only reach their local population, but they also reach the diaspora community. ‘Good communication work,’ the paper notes, ‘is, by definition, multi-platform. It is about integrating media, non mass media and technology tools in a manner that is rooted firmly in an understanding of how communities approach information issues.’

So ‘while aid agencies hesitate, local communities are using communications technology to reshape the way they prepare for and respond to emergencies.’ This hesitation remains in the face of growing evidence, according to the paper, that agencies who invest in meaningful communication with disaster-affected communities garner a range of benefits. ‘The communication process becomes central to effective relationships, mitigating conflict and identifying and preventing rumours and misunderstandings.’ Doing it right, however requires good program design, which in turn, requires aid agencies to focus time and expertise on improving communications with affected populations, which, of course, requires budget allocated to these kinds of activities.

For those agencies that want to look more closely at integrating some of these tools and approaches, the report gives several great examples. The recommendations section is also very useful.

One of the recommendations I think it is especially good to highlight is ‘analyse the communications landscape’ (see InfoAsAid’s materials). I would, however, have liked to see mention of involving members of local communities in a participatory analysis of that landscape. In addition to the technical analysis, it’s important to know who trusts which information sources, and why. For example, the information sources trusted by men may be different than those that women trust. The same goes for children, youth and adolescents. Access is also a critical issue here, especially in terms of reaching more marginalized groups, as the population affected by a disaster is not homogeneous and there will be hierarchies and nuances that should be considered in order to avoid leaving certain people or groups out. I would have liked more mention of the need to take a specialized approach and make a focused effort regarding communication with children and adolescents, with women, with certain ethnic groups or persons with disability, as they may be left out if care is not taken to include them.

Another recommendation I found very useful was ‘think of the whole population, not just beneficiaries.’ The paper cautions that working only with the population that directly benefits from an individual agencies’ funding is a positive angle for transparency and accountability, but it ‘seems to have a profoundly limiting effect in practice.’ Beneficiaries need information about more than just one aid agency, and those who are not benefiting from a particular agency’s programs also have information needs.

The report mentions that sometimes in the aftermath of a disaster, when people use new media to communicate, confidentiality and privacy risks are not fully considered. I’d like to see this aspect addressed a bit more in the future as there is a lack of documented good practice around privacy and protection. (Note: I’ll be involved in some research on ICTs, migration and child protection over the next year, so watch this space if it’s a topic of interest.) Humanitarian agencies may have strong policies here, but this is an area that others may not consider in their rush to offer support following a disaster.

Overall the report is extremely useful for those considering how to improve two-way (or multi-way) communication in a post-disaster situation and I very much enjoyed reading it as it sparked learning and fresh ideas, and documented some good work being done by local as well as international groups.

I don’t have a lot of pity or patience for aid agencies who are ‘left behind’ because they refuse to move with the changing times or because their approaches are not effective or relevant. There are several forces that are ‘disrupting’ humanitarian work these days, and  the report does a great job of identifying some of them. It also highlights the importance of local actors, local private sector and diaspora communities who have always played an important role in aid and development but have only recently been given more recognition.

International agencies still play a critical role in the humanitarian space, but they need to understand and adapt to the changes happening around them. This report can serve as a discussion piece and offer guidance for those agencies who want to use new media and technology to enable them to do a better job of listening to, working with and being accountable to disaster affected populations.

In summary, highly recommended reading!

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In early 2005, following the Tsunami, I collaborated with a cross-section of people at the organization where I work to put together a summary of lessons learned and some short guidelines for working with children and communities in emergencies.

All of us had been directly responsible for supporting and/or coordinating disaster response with communities, staff, local and national governments, international and national NGOs, children, youth, schools and teachers, or some combination of the above, in the countries where we lived and worked.  We discussed preparedness as well as relief and recovery phases. We talked about how child focused community development organizations, like the one where we worked, should look at children’s survival, development, participation and protection in a disaster situation and we created some internal guidelines.

Some of the most important things that stayed with me from the weeks we spent talking with each other, with peer organizations, and with our colleagues who were dealing with the 2004 Tsunami are related to the importance of child participation and protection during emergencies.  These recommendations can be applied now to the crisis in Haiti.

  • Don’t assume children or their families can’t do anything for themselves. Local coping mechanisms are often overlooked and underestimated by central governments or aid organizations, creating unnecessary dependency.  Participating and taking control of their situation can actually help people return to normal sooner. I clearly remember an example of an IDP camp where all the services (food, water) were at first centrally coordinated by the municipal government.  A manager from our organization was able to convince the government to engage camp ‘residents’ and organize children and youth into smaller groups who handled particular responsibilities. Suddenly the trash in the camp was picked up and time spent in the food line went from 2 hours to 20 minutes, tempers lowered and people relaxed a bit and got on with things.  The Children and Participation: Research, Monitoring and Evaluation with Children and Young People by Save the Children is a general guide that can help staff think through and orient participation of children and young people in emergencies.  Child-Oriented Participatory Risk Assessment and Planning (COPRAP): A Toolkit developed by the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) in the Philippines is another excellent resource. Both were adapted and used by Plan during the conflict in Timor Leste, for example.
  • Child protection is critical during an emergency and after. During a disaster the typical social patterns and groupings that protect children may be challenged or broken. Children can be further harmed, abused and exploited by those who take advantage of the chaos.  Unaccompanied children can be preyed on if mechanisms are not established quickly.  Personal information about children is often shared or published widely in the interest of helping find parents or relatives or find missing persons, yet it can also help unscrupulous people to identify unaccompanied children and prey on them, especially now when published on the internet.  Birth registration and restoration of lost identity and other civil registration documents are critical to halt trafficking, as is close coordination among organizations, governments, communities and local agencies/staff.  Community members and the affected population can play a strong role in protecting their children, as can older children themselves.  The Interagency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children, put together by the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children UK, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and World Vision, gives an excellent overview of protection.  Further resources are available at Better Care Network’s website which has materials on separated children in emergencies, how to prevent separation through good relief and response efforts, registration, documentation and tracing, emergency care arrangements, verification and family reunification.
  • Unaccompanied children should not be given up for foreign adoption during the emergency phase. Experience in many past emergencies and conflicts has shown that this is just not the way to go.  In the emergency phase there is no way to ascertain which children are orphans with no other family at all, versus children who might be orphaned but have family somewhere who could take them in.  Taking children out of the country to feed them without a long-term, sustainable plan for them can end up being more complex than finding a way to feed and care for them in country.  Supporting removal of children from their own country during a time of upheaval can also engender a negative reaction among the affected population, who may come to see every external face that comes into the community or camp as someone coming to steal their children.  Interim and emergency care should be consistent with the long-term goal of family reunification.  More background on this can be found at the International Foster Care Association’s website.
  • Participation and protection go hand in hand. The greater the amount of knowledge and ownership that children, youth and their families and communities have, the safer they will be and the sooner they will recover. When the affected people have more input in the relief, recovery and reconstruction, efforts are more successful.  This means linking and coordinating with existing community organizations and structures, local government mechanisms, local non-governmental organizations.  Though it may appear that everything is wiped out in a major disaster, leaders will emerge and regroup.  Plan’s publication “After the Cameras have Gone:  Children in Disasters” offers some examples and insights on protection and participation in disaster situations.
  • Report ethically. The media will undoubtedly look for the ‘best’ story in the interest of raising the most funds possible for the emergency.  In media-speak, unfortunately, that often means the hardest hitting story, the most emotional story, and some journalists/media folks will go extremely far to get it.  However, journalists and agencies bringing journalists to affected communities should obviously not further harm children or take advantage of affected persons in their drive to get the best story.  Journalists should not ask children to relive traumatic experiences or to make them tell stories that upset them just to get a shot of a child crying.  The golden rule applies – how would you like it if that were you or your child?  Children or other community members may be too polite or unsure of whether they can say ‘no’ to a journalist, especially if that journalist is foreign or comes with an aid agency or entity that is linked with emergency aid.  Those working regularly with children and their families should ensure them that they can refuse to talk, they can halt an interview, or not have their picture taken. Local staff managing media visits should feel empowered to intervene on behalf of children in these cases. UNICEF’s “Child Rights and the Media” Guidelines for Journalists and Media Professionals, published by the International Federation of Journalists, gives a background and guide for ethical reporting on children in general.  These guidelines include things like striving for sensitivity when reporting on issues involving children and avoiding use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children, and they should apply in emergency situations as well.

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My main experience with disasters comes from working at an international development organization in El Salvador and happening to be the only senior manager who wasn’t on annual vacation when a huge earthquake struck almost exactly 9 years ago, on January 13, 2001. The rush to act was immediate, and it was a lot of learning by doing.  I got handed the responsibility by fate I suppose and didn’t do such a bad job of it, if I do say so.  At that time we were pretty unprepared; something that has certainly changed since then in the organization where I work.  We now have country level disaster plans at hand and support a lot of disaster risk reduction and preparedness work with local communities and governments.

One of the main challenges for us in responding to the Salvadoran earthquakes in 2001 was information:  lack of information, wrong information, too much information to sort through, outdated information, etc.  We spent way too much time in staff meetings and meetings with other organizations/government sharing what we had done and what we were planning to do, only to find out that everything had changed while we were sitting there, and some decisions were no longer valid.  There was no effective way to manage all the information in the constantly moving and changing circumstances.

And in 2010…?

I’m sure things have changed quite a lot in disaster work since 2001, and since 2005 when I spent about 6 weeks in India and Thailand after the Tsunami, but I would bet that information management will still be a major challenge during the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake, especially given the scale of the crisis and the number of agencies who are already working there or are just now arriving to set up shop.

Today’s technology should allow us a better way to manage this information.  I hope that organizations working on the ground in Haiti will take advantage of the shared and open digital information systems available to them that can be updated in various ways by various people in various locations.  The convergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as digital mapping, crowd sourcing and crowd feeding of information, GPS, mobile phones and SMS,  geo-visualization for rapid decision making and trend spotting will be put to a massive test as the disaster response in Haiti unfolds.

In comes Ushahidi

The place where these ICT tools are converging right now into one ready to use platform is at www.haiti.ushahidi.com.  (I confess that I’m unaware of other options that offer the same or similar crisis management capacity – feel free to post other examples in the comments section). [update: for regularly updated detailed info on Ushahidi and other digital tools being used in the Haiti Crisis, visit the Ushahidi Situation Room].

According to the Ushahidi blog, work on the Haiti crisis map began about 2 hours after the massive quake struck, thanks to a global effort of people linked to Ushahidi, Frontline SMS/Frontline SMS: Medic, UN OCHA Colombia, the International Network of Crisis Mappers, and the US State Department (and probably others behind the scenes that haven’t been mentioned yet).  The system is now operational.  The in-country short code 4636 went live on January 16th.

What is Ushahidi and how does it work?

Ushahidi could be described as a mapping tool and also as a platform I suppose.  Each Ushahidi ‘instance’ is created based on the information needs of whoever is setting up the instance, and a map of a particular geographical area.  Via email, SMS, Twitter, or by filling in an on-line form, anyone can send in information to populate the map with information.  This information falls into specific topic areas that have been decided beforehand by whoever is setting up the site. (Ushahidi instances have been used to track drug stock outs, to monitor elections and human rights abuses, and in crisis situations, for example.)  In the case of Haiti, it’s deaths, emergencies, threats, responses, missing persons, etc.

The “incident reports” that people send in are uploaded onto the map (using geo-location tags) to give a visual representation of what is happening and where.  They are labeled as “verified” or “unverified”.  As data is triaged, the unverified reports are eventually verified.  Different layers of information can be viewed, and you can see an overview or zoom in for more detail on the map.  [Update:  These reports are being channeled now into Sahana’s system (read about it here) system, developed in Sri Lanka for the Asian Tsunami in 2004.]

To really understand how this works, the best thing is to just visit the site.

Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding

Two of the basic concepts behind Ushahidi are “crowd sourcing” and “crowd feeding”. Crowd sourcing means information is obtained from the “crowd”.  Crowd feeding means that the collected information is consolidated and fed back to that same “crowd” so that they are better able to make decisions.  People standing right there on the ground usually know what is happening right there on the ground better than people visiting periodically from centralized headquarters, and via Ushahidi, that information is pulled in from the sources on the ground in almost real-time.  Giving consolidated information back and/or responding to those who provided it completes the circle.

Trust the Public

With a large enough amount of information input, any bogus incident reports can be identified.  I won’t go into all the discussions around the validity of crowd-sourced information as it’s been a large debate, but seems to play out that yes, you can trust the information to the degree necessary to help make quick decisions in times of crisis or emergency — and this information is better than no information or information that comes too late.

In fact, in September, I participated in a meeting about geo-visualization at Google’s offices in Washington, DC (see my before lunch and after lunch posts) and heard presentations by both the American Red Cross (ARC) and the US Federal Environmental Management Association (FEMA). Both organizations talked about the need to trust citizens to report on what is happening right in front of them, and that these reports are every bit as reliable as reports by experts, and a whole lot quicker because people have mobile phones now.  Pulling in information from citizens and mapping out the situation visually can be a huge resource for those making decisions about response.

What’s needed now

What is needed now for Ushahidi in Haiti to work to its fullest potential is for people to share information about what is happening where they are.  The general public in Haiti can text a message into 4636 to submit a report giving their location and telling about their situation: missing persons, need for medical attention, supplies needed, help that has already arrived, changing priorities, etc. [Internationally use 44-76-280-2524, or report using the web form at the Ushahidi Haiti site].

Emergency Aid agencies too

Information sharing is not only something for the public.  In addition to input from the local population, it would be great if local organizations and international agencies would use Ushahidi to share information on what they are seeing as they work in and pass through different communities.  By being open and sharing this kind of information, maybe overall coordination can improve and precious time and resources won’t be wasted because of information challenges.  [Update:  Organizations on the ground can register at Sahana, and receive situation reports so that they can provide assistance.]

One aid agency can’t canvas the whole country alone, and Ushahidi offers a way to get real information from real people on the ground in near real-time. I think it would have much been easier in El Salvador in 2001 if we had the ICTs then that we have now.  I hope people and organizations take the best advantage of them in 2010, now that they are available.


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