Disaster management 2.0: scalable human connections fired by high technology
Scalability, virtual communities and Web 2.0 have changed the world of disaster response. The most successful and disruptive inventions of modern times owe much of their success to scalability. Although people always had the ability to read books, it was only with the invention of the printing press that it became possible for millions of people to do so. Web 2.0 and social media make the ability to connect with people scalable. Scalable human connections combined with open source software and platforms, and unprecedented computing power, results in human-machine synergy also being scaled up. This human-machine synergy results in disruptive technology innovations. Such disruptive innovations have most recently been seen in the area of humanitarian support to disaster and conflict affected countries. USB drives were an innovation that disrupted the market for floppy disks. Although they are not likely to go the way of the floppy disk, the world of traditional disaster relief organizations with proprietary systems, closed data sets and bureaucracy have been up-ended by the disruptive human-machine synergies of Web 2.0 and crowd-sourced humanitarian volunteer organizations.
These synergies, using Web 2.0 tools and social media have helped create a multichannel scalable communication between disaster and conflict-affected populations, humanitarian groups and volunteers, and intelligent data and systems. Recent examples include Haiti, Libya, and Japan, where organizations such as OpenStreetMap, CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Sahana and Ushahidi and others are active in mapping related to disaster management and conflict. Volunteer and technical communities or VTCs work on building intelligent disaster and conflict maps using SMS, social media and satellite imagery; building communities around humanitarian efforts; creating technology tools such as wikis, using open source software and platforms, and using free cloud based services in affected countries. It should be noted though that VTCs, in spite of their good work, and contribution to integration of Web 2.0 tools to solve disaster management challenges, continue to face major challenges. Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, a report produced by the UN and partner organizations, examines these issues in detail.
Collaborative crisis mapping: the power of connecting people
Crisis mapping has helped save lives in Haiti, Japan and other countries. The term refers to the use of dynamic mapping technology to help detect and respond to patterns of conflict situations and natural disasters. It involves collaborative collection and graphical representation of relevant information in a manner that allows the user to make queries and detect patterns that help rescue teams on the ground. Collaborative mapping can save lives through sheer speed, as it involves a large number of experts working together. In Haiti, OpenStreetMap, through crowd sourced, collaborative mapping, helped build the most detailed map available at the time in just two weeks - something that would normally take at least a month! As Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, noted, during the Haiti earthquake, more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti. The volunteers behind the Libya Crisis Map numbered 220+ and were from 30 different countries.
Web 2.0 tools in disaster management: social media-based tools and the mobile platform
Social media, open platforms, and wikis can add value to crisis maps. Social media can add a layer of information via social media tools. For example, a Hypercities project on Egypt maps live Twitter messages on a map of Egypt, showing the location and picture of the Twitterer. Technology tools such as wikis and open source mapping platforms are also helpful. CrisisCommons, for example, has an active wiki, that helps support the use of open data. Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" in Swahili), is an online crisis mapping platform designed to be a tool to crowd source information, and is being used extensively by citizen journalists, NGOs, and other groups.
Mobile technology is integral to the scaling up of disaster response. The most widespread computing device of today is the cell phone. The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cell phone than have access to a clean toilet, says the United Nations. This increase is being fuelled by mobile technology growth in developing countries like Kenya, India, Brazil, South Korea, and even Afghanistan – where cell phone towers leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks. In many poor countries up to two-thirds of people have access to a mobile phone. Therefore mobile device-based services that benefit the poor and under-privileged in developing countries hold rich potential as a pathway to economic development. In Haiti, inspite of the earthquake, many thousands of citizens communicated their needs to the world. InSTEDD, Digicel, and others came up with a free short code (4636) for SMS texts that allowed cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about emergencies or missing relatives. 4636 was used extensively by the citizens and several rescues were attributed to its use (30,000 text messages in the first month, 80,000 total).
Web 2.0 tools including social media, open platforms, wikis and mobile technology have helped create a multichannel scalable communication between disaster and conflict-affected populations, humanitarian groups and volunteers, and intelligent data and systems. The future for Disaster Management 2.0 appears to be bright (see my blog on ReadWriteWeb for details). The development community can help by addressing the challenges faced by the VTCs, encouraging and supporting the growth of mobile computing and embracing innovation.