Digital disaster response

What do you do if you are a disaster manager in a coastal city when a powerful earthquake hits offshore?

  • You start tweeting life-saving updates and safety information to the public, alert your volunteers via SMS and set up a helpline.
  • You host a conference call for rescue workers using open-source tools and provide them with access to key documents via an online file-sharing service before reaching out to emergency accommodation providers through lodgings websites.

At a conference on resilience in New Orleans this week, technology companies outlined the increasingly sophisticated tools they are offering – on an altruistic basis – to help people cope better when disasters strike.

Cloud communications platform Twilio.org is partnering with the International Rescue Committee charity so that refugees in Greece can find out the date of their asylum appointment in their own language via a phone-based voice response system.

Twitter aims to “weaponize Twitter in a disaster” by helping users make the most of different features – from dedicated hashtags to Twitter handle lists, adverts and live video – to get vital information to those affected as quickly as possible. If communications go down or are overloaded in a disaster, an SMS version of Twitter can be activated.

Yet while these companies are seeking innovative ways to assist in disasters, they acknowledged technology cannot always substitute for human support.

When New Orleans was battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, around two-thirds of the lowest-income groups do not have access to the internet, said Estes White, adding that offline information remained essential to piece together a full picture of the situation on the ground and reach all those in need. “I would caution against thinking that social media is a total solution,” she said.

[Thomson Reuters Foundation]

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