Friday, January 08, 2010

Social Networking Technology for Emergencies

Cover of New Technologies in Emergencies and ConflictsThe United Nations Foundation has released "New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks" (2009). The full report is available online, as one donw load and by chapter. The report recommends remove regulatory barriers for better early warning and emergency response and putting more resources into
local preparedness. The call for standardisation of communications is timely, including a global standard for cell broadcast technologies. Australia is entering another bushfire season with limited standardisation of systems at the national level. The report has received some criticism on the Humanitarian ICT discussion list for the breadth of coverage, but such a report can include online a limited amount of material.
  1. Foreword
  2. Acknowledgements
  3. Executive Summary
  4. Introduction
  5. Alerts: Early Warning And Communication Needs
  6. Preparedness: Building Communities’ Resilience
  7. Response: Coordination In Emergencies
  8. Rebuilding: Post-Crisis Services And Development
  9. Recommendations
  10. Endnotes
Executive Summary

Natural disasters and violent conflicts have always been part of human existence. But the number of humanitarian crises has been rising in recent years. Moreover, disasters strike
most frequently, and with the most devastating impact, in the least developed countries. These countries also have the weakest communications infrastructures, which poses a
particular challenge to governments, aid agencies, and the affected population at every stage of a crisis, from the runup to a disaster through to long-term reconstruction.

There have been dramatic advances in communications technology: in the number of new technologies, the mobility and range of functions available, and the spread of these technologies. Growth has been particularly strong in the penetration of mobile phones and more recently the uptake of social networking websites including Facebook and Twitter. One important change is a shift from one-to many forms of communication, such as television and radio, to many-to-many forms of communication, such as social
networking and crowdsourcing websites, that is changing the way in which information is delivered and exchanged.

Communications advances present an opportunity forhumanitarian organizations to harness modern technology to communicate more effectively with communities affected by disasters and to allow members of those communities to communicate with each other and with the outside world.

People in affected communities can recover faster if they can access and use information. A look at the use of communications technology during disasters in recent years shows
that while it has played a positive role, its full potential has not yet been realized.

Moreover, governments, humanitarian agencies, and local communities face challenges and risks associated with modern technological innovation. These include:

• Information flows must be two-way to be effective — from the external world to the affected community, but also from those affected to the agencies seeking to help
them in useful ways.
• Information will not be used unless it is trusted. The utility of any technologies will depend on the social context. People are a vital part of the communication system. ...

Recommendations ...

Remove regulatory barriers
Some regulatory barriers to effective early warning systems and emergency response remain, despite the great progress made in these aspects since the Indian Ocean tsunami. We identified:
• the need for further standardization of communications in emergency situations—such as a global standard for cell broadcast technologies, for example;
• the need to develop standards applicable to existing and future systems for delivery of early warnings or alerts;
• the need for inter-operability between public networks and networks dedicated to emergency communications; and
• a need for priority access by emergency services personnel to communications.

Furthermore, governments must extend the regulatory framework to new and emerging technologies. Regulation is lagging behind innovation. In particular:
• the international community needs to create a legal framework enabling the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which hold great promise for collecting information for
use by humanitarian agencies but are currently unable to be deployed due to legal uncertainties.

Put more resources into local preparedness
People-centeredness has been one of the themes of this report. The people affected by an emergency are in the best position to know what is happening and what they need.

Preparedness requires long-term investment by humanitarian organizations, including investment in public education and capacity building in local media.

Information provision should be recognized as a standard part of both preparedness and aid delivery, and might include:
• preparation of off-the-shelf material agreed on between humanitarian and aid agencies (what to do in an earthquake, basic sanitation advice, for example);
• training humanitarian agencies in communication skills, including receiving and using feedback from communities; and
• the inclusion of a wind-up radio in aid packages.

Information needs to be collected and deployed to be effective. Often this will be done by official agencies, but their responsibilities may be overlapping and uncoordinated.
Preparedness also requires the international humanitarian community to be able to act themselves in a coordinated way on the information and analysis enabled by these emerging systems.

Agencies should share best practices with each other.
Agencies developing tools for use in disaster preparedness and emergency relief should also include consideration of their potential for communities’ post-disaster or postconflict needs, to leverage the investment of resources as effectively as possible.

Governments—especially in developing countries where access is not ubiquitous—also need to consider enhanced access to communications and investment in infrastructure, among all the competing demands for resources.

Leverage new media and crowdsourcing
Some of the most promising applications of new technology in emergencies use social media, often through crowdsourced applications.

As this report has shown, the issue of authentication is a key barrier to overcome. The development of methods and applications for verification of crowdsourced information
should be a priority. The humanitarian community can support the development of innovative platforms that addres the issue of verification as well as provision of information by users.

At the same time, it is important to ensure that communications technologies can offer their users a sufficient degree of anonymity and protection. This will depend on
technological solutions but also, importantly, the legal framework and public debate about the risks as well as benefits of anonymity. ...

From: New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks, United Nations Foundation, December 2009

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