Digital media in times of disaster

An overview of the importance and impact of digital and social media in facilitating response efforts during times of crisis and disaster.

512px-2010_Haiti_earthquake_USAID_intensity_map (Source Wikimedia)

Sunday, 12 January, marked the fourth anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. The quake, which was of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale, had its epicentre just outside of the capital Port-au-Prince, with aftershocks continuing for several days afterwards. Over three million persons were affected and the resulting death toll was estimated at over 100,000.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, a critical contributor to the response effort was digital and social media. In commemoration of this devastating event in the Caribbean, this post highlights the importance of those technologies in facilitating response efforts and a few of the challenges that still exist.

Social media in times of crisis

To many, social media is seen primarily as a medium for personal entertainment, and to a lesser degree, for dissemination of information. We use it to keep in touch with loved ones, to discuss the latest happenings, and occasionally to ask for or get recommendations. However, as social media becomes ever more ubiquitous, increasingly it is also becoming a critical communications channel. Depending on the platform, communication can be instant, democratic and public. Hence all of your followers will receive your public posts and they are also searchable, which in times of disaster means that they can corroborate occurrences on the ground.

Evolution timeline of select social networks (Source: ICT Pulse)
Evolution timeline of select social networks (Source: ICT Pulse)

Other critical digital media aiding emergency response

Although much of the focus is frequently on social media, it is important to recognise other mediums of communications that are critical in disaster or emergency situations. Two of the most used are voice and text messaging service via mobile/cellular phones.

While most of the world, including the Caribbean, might focussed on the latest smartphone, the fact of the matter is that in the developing world, non-smartphone devices still predominate. Further, the high cost of Internet service and limited access to the associated infrastructure often results in relatively few persons consistently using the range of features and capabilities of the typical smartphone, which includes access to social media. Hence in critical circumstances, it is likely that text messaging services and voice calls over the public network will be preferred options.

Digital media mapping

Following Haiti’s earthquake, the ability to create a real time crisis map was through text messages, Facebook posts, tweets and other media was critical to understand the scale and location of the devastation on the ground and to begin to coordinate the initial emergency response. By the time the international press arrived in Haiti, which generally would have been the following day, agencies such as the International Red Cross had already begun to deploy teams locally to much needed areas. In essence, the speed at which agencies are able to roll out an efficient and effective response in countries or areas experiencing a disaster or other type of emergency, would have been due, in large part, to the availability of timely and accurate information with which to determine the best approach.

Having said this, processing the information generated by social and digital media that can be used to coordinate response efforts is still a challenge. In addition to collating, sifting through and corroborating the entries from different platforms, there might be additional complexities if translation services are also required.

The accuracy of a crisis map is strengthened by corroboration. However, in times of disaster or unrest, utilities, especially telecoms and electricity are frequently the first to be compromised. It therefore means that secondary systems or support structures may be necessary to limit the possibility of countries (or parts thereof) being cut off from the rest of the world when help might be most needed.


Image credit:  WikipediaWikimedia