Food, Water, Shelter and Wifi?

starbucksIt’s natural for me, an information guy, to think that one of people’s critical needs in an emergency is information. (If I am not a hammer, why am I surrounded by nails?) So while it may seem that I’m being selfish when I say we should have four goals to accomplish to start people on the road to recovery (food, water, shelter and wifi), anecdotal evidence, especially from the last few disasters, has started to show that my request isn’t so strange.

When I give presentations, I usually mention something about how, in a disaster like the Joplin tornado or Superstorm Sandy, people go to extraordinary lengths to get access to information, but I saw this article in the Guardian recently that demonstrated that this need isn’t just a first-world one, but instead is a function of today’s hyper-connected world.

[I]n developing countries – think of Haiti after the quake, Indonesia post-tsunami or the Central African Republic during the current political upheaval – there is often a rapid decrease or even instantaneous halt to the amount and quality of information available for local people, those directly affected by the crisis. Dangerous rumours and misinformation begin to run rampant, causing panic and poor decision-making.

The article goes onto talk about how humanitarian organizations can, or should be, fulfilling the need for information in those cases. The author mentions how local media is often overlooked in such cases; everyone’s got a radio, right?

And that’s a pretty good place to stop. People are looking for information, and humanitarian organizations can help. But I wonder if there’s not a whole lot more to this idea of giving people information in a disaster. You see, in my title and call, I’m not asking for radio broadcasts. I’m asking for access, for a super fat pipe that can download–and upload–information.

And I want data for two reasons. First is the obvious thing. They are survivors and they need information, on the disaster, on where they need to go, on what needs to happen next, about the larger world (yes, it’s still there). The goal of this is to start the recovery process. The more quickly folks can start to normalize, the more quickly they can get back on their feet. And yes I’ll admit, a lot of this can be handled by traditional post-disaster messaging.

The second reason, though, is where I start running off the rails. In addition to being survivors, these people are two other things. First, they are members of a family. And as family members, and friends, and acquaintances, they have a duty to their family and friends and acquaintances. To let them know they’re okay, or not. To commiserate or be grateful. To ask for help or support or wave it off. Remember, these folks aren’t victims, they are survivors and need to do something to feel useful and helpful.

The second reason they need access is because they CAN help. They’re the only ones who’ve been through this disaster. They know what got hit, what didn’t, who’s missing and where they might be. They are the best information nodes you can ask for. And not only that, it’s likely that they know the area affected by the disaster better than anyone else. You will never get as good, on-the-ground intelligence as you would from a local survivor that’s motivated to help. It’s impossible to pull them all into the Command Post, but by allowing them to post informational updates on Facebook or Instagram, you’ve given the response team a powerful new ally.

I think we’re in the midst of a radical change in how we do emergency response these days. It’s no longer just about saving lives, it’s about empowering survivors, too. By giving them the tools they need to be useful and helpful, we can not only hasten the changeover to recovery work, but also shorten the time needed for their personal recovery, for saving their lives later.


3 thoughts on “Food, Water, Shelter and Wifi?

  1. Very cool insights. When I worked in Nairobi, SMS was an important method of both delivering health info to communities (city and rural) and feeding info back to the health planners and organizations. Ping (@botsping) has great examples of their work using SMS to feed data from all over Botswana to the district health councils to both inform and plan for outbreaks and disasters. For example, an increase in reported malaria cases could lead to an increase in prophylaxis to the area and also a re-direction of bed net supplies…depending what the community says is actually happening on the ground. Would be interesting to see aid organizations leverage and support social networking.

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