Collaborative Technologies and the Future of Disaster Aid

Earlier this afternoon, the UN Week Digital Media Lounge held a panel discussion on “Disaster relief 2.0: collaborative technologies & the future of aid”:

In humanitarian crises, information-sharing and coordination among relief agencies is essential. But what about communications between aid groups and individuals? From Haiti to Pakistan, collaborative technologies are enabling survivors and concerned citizens alike to become important sources of information. Join innovation experts to discuss how new citizen-centered technologies are shaping the future of disaster relief.

Panelists from the UN, U.S. State Department, Ushahidi crisis mapping project, and Microsoft discussed how new technology tools helped the crisis response and aid efforts in Haiti and Pakistan, and the unique, ongoing challenges in disaster relief that are a direct result of the sudden, unpredictable nature of disasters.

  • Oliver Lacey-Hall, Deputy Chief, Communications & Information Services Branch, UN OCHA
  • Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships, Ushahidi
  • Nigel Snoad, Microsoft and the ICT4Peace Foundation
  • Adele Waugaman, Senior Director, UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnerships
  • Noel Dickover, Civil Society 2.0 Lead, Diplomatic Innovation Division, U.S. Department of State, & Co-Founder, CrisisCommons

After Haiti suffered a massive earthquake earlier this year, mobile technology was one of the most widely used tools to gather real time reports and get information out as quickly as possible. The UN launched a live crisis map of Haiti with near real-time information integrated from news reports, Twitter, and SMS messages. Over 2,000 volunteers from around the world translated text messages from Haitian Creole to English.

A lot of lives were saved by use of new technologies to coordinate the disaster response and relief effort in Haiti, but technology use was completely reactive because of the scale of the event, and the devastating effect on Haiti’s government and infrastructure. For relief agencies, coordinating the most basic communication about specific needs was an added challenge to delivering the relief.

The panelists agreed that better advance coordination between governments and aid agencies is essential, and interagency collaboration frameworks were put in place after the 2004 Banda Aceh Tsunami, but even these channels are being increasingly overwhelmed by each subsequent disaster.

One approach the panelists suggested to improve the elasticity of disaster response efforts is a balance between coordinating commonly understood communication and ethical standards, operating procedures, alert systems, and technical capabilities like mapping, and helping local civil society groups make sure they have the information skills necessary when a disaster strikes.

The U.S. State Department’s Civil Society 2.0 initiative is directly addressing the gap between what civil society organizations need and what the technology community can provide in raw tools and capabilities. Civil Society 2.0 aims to bring together the technology community and the civil society community to directly identify what they need in a manner that’s better than saying, “Here’s your tool set. Enjoy.” according to Noel Dickover, Civil Society 2.0 Lead at the State Department. Dickover says the best scenario is one in which the initiative can help a civil society organization use available technologies to meet its identified needs:

You need to get more volunteers and raise capacity. What’s available? Nokia phones and SMS messaging. Lets work with that.

The Civil Society 2.0 initiative is also building a curriculum to cover some of the most commonly identified needs, such as:

• How to build a website
• How to blog
• How to launch a text messaging campaign
• How to build an online community
• How to leverage social networks for a cause

When the next disaster occurs, the goal of initiatives like Civil Society 2.0 is to make sure that people in the midst of the event are as well equipped as possible to help the responding governments and agencies provide the best, most organized relief possible.

Photo credit: United Nations Foundation

Update: This article is featured on UN Week Media, the official online coverage of UN Week events, sponsored by Mashable, 92Y, and the United Nations Foundation.

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