After reading a World Bank publication about leveraging ICT for development, I wondered how Manilenos used their social networks to remain resilient to the devastating floods of the past weeks. In a country with a per capita income that is only 56% of the East Asia & Pacific regional average, the data for ICT penetration is astounding (although anybody who knows how popular SMS is in the Philippines might not be surprised):
My curiosity piqued, and wanting to find out how my friends were holding up, I set up a (highly unscientific) poll of my Facebook network to find out how social media, mobile communication, and ICT are used by Metro Manilans during disasters. The following are just a few examples of the answers:
• Huge factor in better response this time were Government Twitter and Facebook accounts, and citizen efforts like Rescue.ph (where people could list SOS requests on a Google document, as well as the progress of rescues). Not perfect but a step in the right direction!
• The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) Facebook page, Twitter account and apps also kept sending flood and traffic alerts.
• Behavior has changed, in my view. Folks posted photos [on Facebook] of actual flooded areas to serve as warning and advance notices…which were quickly distributed throughout the social media site. Others linked to or reposted official government updates. A few posted emergency numbers. Later, evacuation areas (maps) were shared to direct willing volunteers.
• What I call "personal chatter" seemed to lessen to give more air time for the value-adding posts.
• Social media (in my case, Facebook) allowed me to provide (close to) real-time info of flooded areas to some friends who were asking (via chat, because they couldn't browse Facebook at work). It's made info move faster.
• I was using 'the whole enchilada' to receive and share info. Project Noah was great in monitoring extent of rainfall as well as river depths around the Metro, and this was useful to share on Facebook. Twitter was the primary place I was getting info on school closings for my daughter. MMDA's twitter account was reporting which main roads were progressively becoming inundated and inaccessible. This is pretty much what everyone used and, yes, this has largely changed the behavior of everyone who had access to the internet whether on PCs, laptops, or cell phones.
• One good result of the social aspect of these networks is the unprecedented feedback loop it allowed between “netizens” and the government. Two cases:
1. When the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) came up with their flood warning system, they first came up with a confusing Red - *Green* - Yellow alert system, with Green meaning floodwaters were getting higher. There were vocal complaints on Twitter and Facebook over this confusing use of colors, and this morning PAGASA conceded and announced the change of the warning system to a less confusing Red-Orange-Yellow instead (with Red being the worst case).
2. When the Executive Secretary announced the suspension of work in the private sector in the Gov PH Facebook and Twitter accounts last Tuesday (something totally unprecedented in itself), Tweets and Comments popped up saying that HR departments were asking for the Memorandum Circular number and link from the Office of the President. I relayed this to the Presidential Communications Group via Twitter and within an hour they put up the signed memo on http://www.gov.ph/. This showed one of the ways the people can 'talk back' to the government…and how government can actually respond in practical ways.
For one reason or another, Filipinos were early adopters of mobile technology, SMS, and other social media. Maybe it’s because we’re extremely family- and community-oriented (when a relative goes abroad, the whole town will pile into a jeepney to see them off at the airport). The data show that even the low-income population segment has access and usage rates comparable to that of East Asia and the Pacific, and the country in general surpasses usage in the rest of the region.
For me the lesson was that, in stormy times, bayanihan (the spirit of communal unity or effort to achieve a particular objective) can provide innovative ways for developing-city residents to work with their government and each other towards safety and resilience…until the sun comes out again.