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Posts Tagged ‘response’

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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Henri from Plan Benin training on SMS reporting.

In February I was in Benin to support staff to pilot the idea of using SMS reporting (FrontlineSMS) and digital mapping (Ushahidi) to strengthen local and national systems for reporting, tracking and responding to violence against children.  We conducted 2 workshops in mid-February with youth leaders, frontline staff, community members, local authorities from the Center for Social Protection (CPS) and representatives from the Ministry of the Family to get things started.

For some more background, check out my previous posts on the Violence against Children (VAC) project, the questions we asked ourselves before getting started on the SMS and mapping initiative, and the February workshops in Benin and what we learned there.

Since February, staff in Benin have been following up with workshop participants and with local authorities and institutions, including: the Prefect, the Mayors, community supervisors, animators of the children’s/youth media clubs, headmasters and other school authorities and the CPS.  The youth in one community did a radio program about violence against children and talked about SMS reporting. They also designed an information sheet that’s been hung up all over the town to encourage the population to report cases of violence.

Henri, Plan Benin’s ICT Director who facilitated at the Benin workshops, went to Togo to replicate the training with staff and youth there.  He and Carmen, who manages the overall VAC project in Benin, have also been observing and collecting feedback on the system to see where it needs tweaking.  They have put a project plan together for the next 6 months or so.

Carmen the VAC project coordinator in Benin.

Observations that Henri and Carmen shared and some thoughts we have about resolving them:

Issue:

  • Most people call instead of sending SMS

Hmmm….

  • Why?  Habit?  Literacy?  Unclear indications of what to do or unclear expectations of what the system is for?  We need to find out more about this.  It would be good to know exactly what kind of volume we are talking about total in terms of SMS vs calls. (I will update this post when I find out.)
  • Should we start taking calls too then? And are there resources and capacity to manage calls in addition to FrontlineSMS (which is automated)? How are we linking with the Child Help Line in Benin?
  • Could both calls and SMS be administered in the Ushahidi system?  Eg., Just as an administrator needs to review any SMS’s that come into Ushahidi  before approving them, someone could be tasked with inputting information from a phone call into the Ushahidi back end to then trigger the rest of the process (verification, response, etc). And how would that impact on pulling data out of the system for decision making?  (See this post for more information on how the system is currently conceived)

Issue:

  • Some people are sending a re-call SMS (asking us to return the call)

Hmmm….

  • We need to find out why people are sending re-call messages instead of SMS’s.  Because in the current set-up, text messages are not free?  Literacy issues? Because our system looks like something else they’ve done where re-call was the norm?  Something else?
  • If it’s due to low literacy or language issues, how can we open the system to those who cannot read/write or who do not use French?
  • Plan Benin is discussing with the GSM provider to find a way to send back an automatic reply SMS informing people not to call but to send a message, and to take this opportunity to indicate in the message what is expected as information.  But if literacy/language is the issue, we will not have solved anything by doing this…. Sounds like we really need to make sure calling is an option, and that good integration with the national Child Help Line is a real priority.
  • Plan Benin is also negotiating getting a “green line” or free short code, so that might resolve part of this.

Issue:

  • Many people are not using the key word ‘HALTE’ (stop) at the beginning of the message, meaning that the commands don’t trigger the messages to automatically send the information to Ushahidi.  (In the current system, each SMS should include the key word ‘HALTE’.  This key word triggers a “thanks for your message” automatic response from FrontlineSMS, and the forwarding of the message to the Ushahidi back end for subsequent management and follow up by local authorities.)

Hmmm….

  • Staff noticed that most (but not all) of the messages without the key word ‘’HALTE’’ contained the word ‘enfant’ (child). Henri has added ‘enfant’ as a key word in addition to ‘HALTE’ — and says it is working fine.  So we will assess if this helps.
  • Another alternative would be to not use any keywords – we will need to look into whether we can set FrontlineSMS up so that any SMS that goes to that number gets auto forwarded to Ushahidi.

Early draft of a poster promoting violence reporting by SMS

Issue:

  • Most of the messages are too vague to find the place and the victim for responding (and people do not have GPS enabled phones).  We have suggested that an SMS report should contain certain information [HALTE+type of violence+where it’s happening (eg., school, home, etc)+village name+district+age+sex+name of child if known], but people don’t follow the suggested format.

Hmmm….

  • How can we simplify it or better explain the type of information that’s needed?  Something we need to dig deeper into and consult with users to figure out.  Carmen’s take is that we are at the beginning of the process and we need to be patient and sensitize a lot so that people get used to the idea and understand how things work.

Issue:

  • Compatible FLSMS phones and modems are very difficult to find.  We were only able to find one phone that was compatible in Benin (a used one) because newer phone models are not compatible and the modems we found refused to connect.

Hmmm….

  • We really need to get this resolved since the entire system in Benin rests on one phone. What if it stops working?  It’s really difficult to expand the project without a larger set of phone/modem options.  We’ll work with the FrontlineSMS forum or staff (both are always super helpful on this kind of thing) in the next couple weeks to figure out how to resolve the compatibility issues, because there are modems available in West Africa that should be compatible, but that we couldn’t get to function.

Issue:

  • We planned for community response teams to be able to subscribe to alerts on Ushahidi, so that when there is an incident reported in the zone where they work, they would be alerted by SMS and could set the follow up process in motion.  But we haven’t been able to get the alerts working on Ushahidi or set up email reporting there.

Hmmm….

  • We discussed with the Ushahidi team and the problem was that not all the strings of code in Ushahidi had been translated into French yet.  Thanks to @theresac and @penelopeinparis, who volunteered to translate a load of strings, we are getting everything into French, and Henry at Ushahidi is helping get alerts working.  We still need to finalize all the elements on our Ushahidi page however and get everything working.  We’d also like to customize our Ushahidi page to make it our own, similar to the customizing that Voices of Kibera has done with their Ushahidi instance.

Any additional thoughts or help on the above issues are most welcome!


As for next steps, Henri and Carmen shared their plans:

  • Present the system to political and administrative authorities, including: head of the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, juvenile judges, Ministry of the Family’s Director for Children and Adolescents, Director of Family Programs, Minister of ICTs, cabinet and authorities who regulate telecommunications, Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, National Assembly, mayors and prefects, schools and teacher-parent committees, community authorities, media
  • Train staff, government partners, school and parent committees, and local NGOs on the reporting system, including a 1-day workshop with all Plan staff and a 1 day workshop with local NGO partners, schools and government staff
  • Accompany child protection committees and organized youth groups to use the system.  This will be done by holding sessions with organized children and youth groups at village level to reinforce and raise awareness on the reporting system; training child protection committees to use the new reporting system; holding one day sessions each month with the village level child protection system staff to discuss follow up on reports that have come in, and installing FrontlineSMS in each local site and adding local focal points as Ushahidi administrators
  • Strengthen awareness in the public and with leaders to support violence reporting by developing a communications plan to generate awareness on the issue of violence, the importance of reporting, and the mechanisms to report via SMS; supporting youth to use arts and theater to raise awareness on the issue of violence against children; talking with religious leaders and village chiefs; creating television, radio, newspaper and web advertisements to reach the general public and decision makers
  • Secure a free short code (target:  by May)
  • Conduct a national level evaluation workshop with involved local and national actors (in 6 months)

As we move forward, more questions will surely come up and we’ll need to continually tweak things. But I feel that we’re off to a good start. The fact that people are calling in and SMS’ing in is a good sign already that the program has some potential, and that people are willing to report violence against children.

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Related posts on Wait… What?

Breaking it down: violence against children

Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

Seven (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the middle

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