Advances in Internet technologies and digital media have enabled us to better prepare for, assist with, and manage disaster situations. At the same time, however, the need for these developments seems to have increased too. (Source: The International Disaster Database – image 1) It may simply be these same technological advances and tools which are making us all the more aware of disasters. It is definitely easier to report them e.g. due to the ubiquity of telephones (including mobile), computers, the Internet, and now, social media.

Number of Disasters Reported: 1900-2011 (Source: emdat.be)

Yet, according to the IDD, the occurrence of floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes and epidemics has increased considerably since the 1950s. There has also been considerable political unrest resulting in populations requiring many levels of disaster relief, intervention and aid. Technology increasingly has a vital role to play, ensuring that help is delivered effectively, efficiently, at the right time, and in the right place.

This technology, ranging from telecommunications to crowd mapping tools as well as the growth in social media usage are changing the face of our response to disasters across the globe.

Real-time, on the ground reporting, even when telecoms have vanished under the weight of a disaster, can now bring essential awareness, information, data, photos and video to those tasked with preparing and responding. Humanitarian assistance can be delivered now in hours rather than days or weeks, meaning that those affected remains a reasonably stable figure, and the number of people killed in natural disasters since 1975 is now dropping.

Number of people killed by natural disasters: 1975-2011 (Source: IDD)

What Constitutes A Disaster?

Disasters can include terrorist attacks, industrial sabotage, fire, natural disasters (such as earthquakes, severe weather, etc.), public disorder, industrial accident, communications failure and loss, or corruption of critical information.

An ‘emergency’ is “an unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility’s financial standing or public image” (FEMA, 1993).

Some of these events can prove catastrophic, as we have seen recently with the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Tōhōku earthquakes and tsunamis. We are also seeing an increasing number of wildfires across hundreds of thousands of acres of land in many countries. One hundred year floods are occurring more frequently, the strongest storm yet recorded hit the Philippines in November 2013, Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Haiti, the Fukushima nuclear disaster which two years later remains an ongoing problem….to name just a few disasters.

Emergency management is “the discipline and profession of applying science, technology, planning and management to deal with extreme events that can injure or kill large numbers of people, do extensive damage to property, and disrupt community life” (Drabek, 1991a, p. xvii).

No one knows where the next disaster zone may be, and emergency preparation and management has now become the responsibility of each and every one of us, especially in the technology and digital arenas. It is up to each of us to become involved using our skills to help deliver support and establish best practice which can then be replicated in future events.

Who Helps In Disaster Situations?

It is not only the many standard agencies we all know, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent; Medecins Sans Frontiers, United Nations, governments, and NGOs also assist in such crises and help to make the difference today between life and death.

The press and media play a critical role in getting feet and cameras on the ground to disseminate information about ongoing situations in disaster zones. Emergency journalists enjoy a vast array of technology resources now to assist in news gathering. These include Storyful which helps to put together a cohesive picture of breaking news on social media, and to verify social stories with reputable news sources; geo-social tools that help to collate social signals from specific locations e.g. iWitness and Geofeedia; weather and emergency information such as the Emergency list on Facebook, and Twitter has now launched its emergency channel in UK, after US, Japan and South Korea in September 2013.

The Philippines, one of the most social media-savvy countries in the world, relied on Facebook and Twitter to disseminate information about the recent typhoon Yolanda as people pleaded for rescuers to retrieve them from the rooftops of their homes(Source: Mashable.com)

Google launched a landing page that constantly updates resources such as Person Finder. This is a tool that is currently hosting (at the time this article was written), more than 108,400 records of missing people in the Philippines. Instant messaging service Viber has launched a temporary service that allows Filipino users to make free calls to regular (non Viber) numbers outside the Philippines. This has been a huge help for citizens to contact loved ones during this crisis.

The rise in citizen journalists has also changed the traditional media picture to a considerable extent. These citizen journalists now bring disaster news to a wider audience using the Internet and help inform news sources, aid agencies etc., using camera phones, Speak2Tweet,YouTube’s CitizenNews channel, social media (in particular, Twitter and Facebook), and other similar resources to document and report atrocities, injuries, damage and so on to their neighbours, friends, communities and the outside world. The impact of this citizen journalism and the power of social media in disasters has so far been most clearly seen during the Arab Spring.

And Then There Is The Crowd

Immediately after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a project began which brought together thousands of strangers over the Internet to provide support to those affected.Quakebook began with a single tweet and was an extraordinary demonstration of global collaboration by people, many of whom are unlikely to ever meet in real life, using social media and cloud-based tools. Quakebook saw Amazon and Sony waiving fees and Yoko Ono and William Gibson contributing funds. Within a mere four weeks, a book of photos, survivor stories, and illustrations hit the bookshelves to raise at least $50,000 for the Red Cross Japan in a matter of months. Quakebook is still raising money today, so please buy a copy.

Another example of this online collaboration during the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami was the realization that what was most missed, aside from home, relatives, stability, normality and so on was socks. It was still winter, the ground was sodden, socks are overlooked and shoes lost when fleeing a disaster zone. Cold feet make life even more miserable.

Socks for Japan put out a global request for socks, and processed and delivered over 157,000 pairs of socks into the affected zone. Such a simple thing, but it made a huge impact on those suffering from the catastrophe.

Demonstrations of how people can co-operate and collaborate online during disasters are increasing by the day. It is important to note that whilst there is often an enthusiasm to jump on a plane and go and help personally, unprepared volunteers in adisaster zone, however well-meaning, can often cause extra chaos and problems. They end up adding an even greater burden on over-stretched resources. Joining in online is far more beneficial to all concerned.

CrisisCommons and CrisisCamp are prime examples of experts coming together to volunteer their skills to the benefit of those affected and those offering humanitarian aid. This can include data mining and mapping – for example, to create ‘heat maps’ of incidents – collating reports to assist with triage and routing aid to the most urgent areas, and hacking (which means ‘coding’) apps, software and even hardware. For instance, to improve workflow through NGOs systems, make open source, long range Wi-Fi possible, or help create social media apps that deliver information to affected citizens in real-time as water, food, power, medicine, clothes and so on, become scarce.

Rapid response between these collaborations is possible because much of the planning and development takes place between crises. It is often said, “That the time to exchange business cards is not in the middle of a disaster.” All of these organisations need volunteers to deliver results, and this is where word of mouth and digital marketing can make an impact, as we shall see below. To achieve that, the power of the Internet and good communications comes to the fore.

What To Do When The Communication Networks Don’t Work

Where previously disaster communications, reporting, management, aid and support were delivered by agencies, governments and the mainstream media, now citizens are able to seek help themselves online. They are often best placed and better informed about the environs and locality than experts who have been parachuted in to an unknown area.

Now, victims can be responders, bringing aid to themselves using the technology at their disposal in their normal lives – smart phones, computers, Wifi, and digital cameras. This is reliant, usually on a working communication network, which could have been seriously disrupted by extreme weather, natural or man-made disasters.

However, there are instances – for example, political unrest, civil wars, coups and uprisings – when kill-switch censorship comes into play and communications are shut down deliberately to prevent word of the problems being experienced reaching the outside world. In 2011, the Egyptian government cut off all Internet communications. Within days, Speak2Tweet (launched by Google, Twitter and SayNow) allowed Egyptians to use voicemail to deliver a tweet with the hashtag #egypt. In November 2012, the service was restarted for Syria.

Just before 10:30 a.m. UTC on November 29, traffic from the Akamai Intelligent Platform to users in Syria dropped to zero, supporting claims that Internet access to the country had been axed.(Credit: Akamai)

In light of the problems that can be suffered due to a lack of communications infrastructure in disaster zones, for whatever reason, it is no surprise that one of the major areas of tech development has been satellite, wireless and mobile technology. It can be dropped into emergency zones and set up to provide communications for all. These range from AT&T’s mini cell tower and the New Zealand Red Cross satellite and VHF radio repeater in a suitcase set-ups, through to the new mesh network solutions such as the Serval Project.

After Hurricane Katrina, the only communications left working was the New Orleans municipal Wifinetwork for CCTV, which proved a lifeline to thousands after it was hastily re-jigged by Wi-Fi experts to carry VoIP calls (Voice over Internet Protocol). This example has been repeated many times, for instance a Red Hook experimental community Wifi network provided communications during Hurricane Sandy, even when many householders had no power, water or heat. DisasterTechLab was set up after the Haiti disaster and is the evolution of Haiti Connect. It is also now working on big data during the Philippine crisis.

How To Contribute

There are now a multitude of online organisations – some established and others which spontaneously come together in the face of a crisis – who are always actively seeking volunteers. Anyone with a digital skill – be it coding, Wifi, big data, or getting the word out to the masses and the media a.k.a marketing – can and should get involved in helping the world to deal with the natural and man-made crises we face.

Digital marketers in particular can play a key role in taking away the strain during crises of finding and bringing in additional skills (your exceptionally well-honed search skills and extensive network and followers will come to the fore here). Promoting the need for these organisations between crises (when the planning and business card swapping happens):

  • To help set up formal and informal networks
  • To share expertise about design, usability and optimization of websites so that they work when required
  • Managing social media campaigns
  • Crafting clear, key messages about the crisis
  • Supporting and promoting social emergency apps
  • And invariably, much more, depending on the nature of the crisis

The payback to this is that many of the lessons learned and strategies developed during emergencies can be adopted to help digital marketing campaigns, although usually at a less frenetic pace. However, in marketing crisis management, understanding how to get the word out fast, use the crowd, etc. is imperative. An impersonal study of such events is in no way as mutually beneficial as your involvement and actual participation in an online disaster response plan.

The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN)is the official interface between formal humanitarian organizations and global volunteer networks. This network was activated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Running on DHN is MicroMappers, a tool that sorts through online data and then displays the information on satellite maps. Helping the relief efforts in the Philippines, aid agencies are able to view the real time maps and date to better plan their relief efforts. Patrick Meier who developed this tool spoke to National Geographic: “We launched MicroMappers in order to very quickly tag tens of thousands of tweets (and soon pictures) coming out of the Philippines. More specifically, and at the UN’s request, we are asking volunteers from all around the world to tag tweets if they are related to “requests for help,” “infrastructure damage,” and “displaced populations.” We’re doing this entirely online via the Digital Humanitarian Network and anyone can volunteer; no prior training or experience required.”

There is a lesson here for all—“no prior training or experience required”. If you want to help during an emergency, you absolutely can. Digital media and online humanitarian networks make it possible for us to do so. You just need the fire in your belly and an Internet connection.

Are there any other disaster management tools available that are worth a mention? Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic.