NGOs Must Harness Social Media Beyond Disaster Relief

    by Susannah Vila
    February 16, 2010
    UNICEF USA "uses Flickr":http://www.flickr.com/people/unicefusa/ to share photos from their Haiti disaster relief efforts

    When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Doctors Without Borders had 1,300 followers on Twitter. Now, it boasts over 13,000. The Red Cross follower count shot up by just over 40,000 people in the weeks following the quake. If technology wasn’t already transforming the public role of the non-governmental organization, it has now brought many to a point of no return.

    Bigger Followings Mean Bigger Responsibility

    As Jason Cone, the communications director for Doctors Without Borders, noted during New York’s recent Social Media Week, the earthquake was a “game changer in the way [his organization] thinks about social networks and [their] application.”

    Social media might actually be a means for us to mobilize and overcome some of the real serious obstacles we had been facing." - Jason Cone

    “Social media might actually be a means for us to mobilize and overcome some of the real serious obstacles we had been facing,” he said.


    Cone was getting at an idea that thinkers in the field had been suggesting before the quake struck: For civil society to evolve alongside technology, organizations must envision ways to better harness new media at all times — not just when disaster strikes.

    “How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz”? asked Lokman Tsui at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

    Non-governmental organizations are taking on new roles as large-scale transmitters of information. This also means that they have a greater responsibility to share news with each other, not only with the population at large. The easier it becomes to disseminate information, the more pressing the call to formally share resources across organizational lines in the name of cooperation.


    ‘Jamming’ Online for a Safer World

    Using digital tools to foster increased collaboration was an important goal of the recent Security Jam, an online forum that convened think tanks, NGOs, governments and citizens to hash out ideas and solutions for making the world a safer place.

    While the jam might at first glance seem like a glorified chat room, it was roughly the 50th such event in a series that is run by IBM, a company with a history of facilitating practical solutions. For example, an internal IBM jam in 2006 brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries who posted more than 46,000 ideas, which resulted in 10 new businesses and $100 million in funding.

    As Leendert Van Bochoven, a NATO and European Defense Executive at IBM, said: the jams were “to a certain extent born out of frustration where we attended conferences … without attendance of the NGO’s [and] we came to the conclusion [that] if you really want to have a fruitful debate … then we ought to involve all relevant stakeholders.”

    Indeed, attending the Security Jam is a lot easier than traveling to a conference — the online location means that interested civilians and NGO workers currently deployed in the field can easily participate. Jams are a little like the anti-Davos in that the number of people sharing information with each other is much larger than at a physical conference, and the technology allows organizers to efficiently zero in on the most buzzed about ideas. They can then call for “bread and butter” plans that can be implemented in the immediate future.

    “A physical conference on this scale would be almost impossible and rather inefficient,” said Van Bochoven.

    All told, the event elicited 10,000 logins and 4,000 posts from people in 124 countries. It also provided a platform for horizontal communication between leading experts like the State Department’s Anne Marie Slaughter, the executive directors of Human Rights Watch and the World Food Program, and interested citizens. The ideas will now be streamlined into a set of practical proposals to be presented for the leadership of the EU and NATO, among others, at an official event in April.

    A Step in the Right Direction

    While these new ideas may prove worthwhile, the online forum is obviously no panacea. And when it comes to the digital behavior of most NGOs, those that took part in the jam were probably in the minority.

    As Michael Best, an associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Information Technologies and International Development, told me, “the Haiti example has shown that not all civil society groups are ready to leverage the full power of today’s communication and computing systems.”

    “in some cases the human network is slow to adapt to the digital network,” he said. “NGOs probably need to better prepare to make full use of these systems as an integrated component of their work, especially at the interface between collaborating organizations where coordination most often breaks down.”

    In the hours following the quake in Haiti, many would-be humanitarians wandered aimlessly, unable to get in touch with either each other, or those in need of help. Slowly, by using tools like Twitter, SMS, Skype and the Ushahidi platform, they began to coordinate — locating those in need of help, and discovering who was nearby. This process can, and should, occur at a larger scale — and before, not after, disaster strikes.

    Susannah Vila is New York City-based writer, focusing on the intersection of technology and politics. She’s a graduate student at Columbia University, where she’s currently researching the role of information communication technologies in civil society. Get in touch with her at [email protected].

    Tagged: doctors without borders haiti earthquake human rights networks ngos security jam
    • Siti Arbaiya

      Agree with your points that social media should be used beyond disaster relief. One very successful use of social media to help disaster relief is as per link below. Personally, I think it’s a huge success that is being taken for granted when disasters like Haiti happened. Take a look at it and hopefully we will all learn something.


    • Thanks — Ill check it out!

    • Sara

      Hi Susannah,

      Those wandering would-humanitarians were mainly coordinated through CrisisCamps: see http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/

      Meanwhile, the UN-led CDAC group is currently trying to link the technology responses to disasters; see http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/CDAC for a summary of this work.



    • There are Flood Come in Pakistan states and areas and Flood affected the differents areas of People and affected poor people .
      Once again People Cry for Help.

      “Aid agencies said more than 500,000 people were affected by flash floods and landslides in the northwest.”

      Floods caused by a week of heavy rain have killed more than 1,000 people in Pakistan’s northwest and rescuers battled on Sunday to distribute relief to tens of thousands of people trapped.

      The United Nations said the rains and floods affected over one million people.
      Please send your help and support to affected people with Flood your small contribution provide big help .They need a basic things Food , Water and shelter , and they are Cry for help ..
      Many Thousands people loss there every things in this Flood , people loss there lifes , there childrens , there releatives and loss there Cows and other Animals and loss the works homes and lost there basic things of Life.

      A westerly weather system moving in from Iran and Afghanistan, combined with heavy monsoon rain, caused the worst floods on record in Pakistan in the past week, with the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa the worst hit.
      Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told Pakistani media more than 1,000 people had been killed and the toll could be even higher. In Afghanistan, dozens of people were killed and thousands were rescued after flash floods in the northeast.
      “The level of devastation is so widespread, so large, it is quite possible that in many areas there are damages, there are deaths which may not have been reported,” army spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told reporters late on Saturday.
      More than 30,000 Pakistani army troops have rescued over 19,000 people from the marooned areas but officials conceded some might still be trapped and awaiting help in remote areas including Kohistan, Nowshera, Dir and in the Swat valley.
      “Virtually no bridge has been left in Swat. All major and minor bridges have gone, destroyed completely,” Abbas said of the valley which has borne the brunt of the floods.
      A Reuters photographer in Nowshera on Sunday saw two bodies lying on the ground and dead animals in several places, as groups of people waded through floodwaters to dry land.

      “There is now a real danger of the spread of water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, asthma, skin allergies and perhaps cholera in these areas,” Shaharyar Bangash, World Vision Pakistan’s programmes manager, said in a statement.
      The US embassy in Islamabad said it was providing immediate aid, including two water filtration units and more than 50,000 meals, for affected areas. It also provided helicopters on Friday which helped rescue 400 people from flooded areas.

      The meteorological department has forecast more rain in the coming days.

      Downstream, parts of the central province of Punjab were flooded and emergency crews aided by soldiers airlifted people from hundreds of submerged villages on Sunday in the area of Taunsa, a town on the Indus river about 388 km (241 miles) southwest of Islamabad.

      Officials said huge surges were expected in the southern province of Sindh between Tuesday and Thursday, expected to cause widespread damage to property and farmland near river banks and in low-lying areas.

      “A super flood of this magnitude will be the first in 18 to 20 years to hit Sindh, but major cities like Karachi and Hyderabad were unlikely to be affected,” Jameel Soomro, a spokesman for the provincial Sindh government, told Reuters.

      “The risk is there, danger is there but we are doing our best to minimise losses as much as can.” he said. — Reuters

      We are Collecting help for poor people who are affected with Flood and loss there homes and every thing in Flood.

      Please reply this E-mail we and provide your help to people who really need and Cry for hlep .

      “Please Provide your help”

      Send response we give you information that how you can send your quick help give your …

      Pastor Ravi Daniel
      all our team
      from Pakistan.
      Phone # 0092-3157032005.
      We hope you send your response very soon
      Praise the God

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media