Tag Archives: disasters

Facebook’s new “Nearby Friends” feature could be a tool for disasters

During Tuesday’s class we discussed different technology tools that can be used to respond to disasters. Today, I read an article on CNN.com about Facebook launching a new feature called “Nearby Friends” and I thought it could be an interesting tool that could be used to respond to natural disasters, though it certainly does have some drawbacks. If users choose to turn the feature on, their friends will be able to follow their location. The idea is that the feature will enable face-to-face interaction by allowing users to see which of their friends are nearby. Users are also able to choose which friends are able to access their location information. Furthermore, the location is only shared with friends who have agreed to also share their locations. The feature will automatically update the location of the user.

The initial safety and privacy concerns are mitigated since Facebook made the feature opt-in and gives users much flexibility in choosing who is allowed to view their location. Users must be cautious with who they allow to follow them and parents must be especially vigilant about their children. But, if used properly, it gives only people close to them the ability to view their location. In times of disaster, this could be extremely beneficial. Following disasters, family and friends often have a difficult time locating their loved ones. This feature has the potential to allow people to quickly locate their loved ones. It could be deployed in disaster zones for this purpose.  It is, however, limited in how much it could be used since the app would still require some type of network connection to continue sending updates.

The New Airpower: More than Warfare

When thinking about disaster relief and humanitarian aid, we often see NGOs as the major players. In addition, we often see governments and militaries as the bad guys in the field of development work. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the military is no longer confined to linear warfare. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, militaries dealt increasingly with natural disasters, humanitarian relief operations, resource conflicts, terrorism, small-scale conventional conflicts, and insurgencies. Some of the most prominent forces in disaster relief are militaries.

According to an article from the International Relations and Security Network in Zurich, the United States Air Force (USAF) recently modified its definition of airpower. In the past, airpower was limited to war-faring aircrafts and pioneering spacecraft. The definition of airpower now includes cyber power. It is important to note that USAF does not see cyber power as a channel for carrying out operations but rather an enabler that facilitates improved operations.

This new take on military operations just goes to show the increasing importance of ICTs. If the military is becoming increasingly involved in disaster relief and humanitarian aid, while it’s broadening its definition of airpower to include cyber technology, it sets the stage for utilizing ICTs in disasters. ICTs are not only useful in their own respects (early warning systems, government alerts on iPhones, locating missing persons, mapping, etc.), but they can be used to improve existing operations. ICTs could help the military, and NGOS as well, manage their soldiers/volunteers, track distribution of aid materials, improve efficiency of aid delivery, and the list goes on. If you needed a reason before to consider ICTs a crucial part of humanitarian work, take a look at the United States Air Force who is restructuring itself to include natural disasters as a part of its duties and ICTs a part of its anatomy.

Real First World Problems: Forgetting the Need for Mapping

We had the privilege of hearing directly from Robert Banick, the GIS coordinator at the American Red Cross HQ in Washington D.C., as a guest speaker for our ICT4D class period. What struck me about his presentation was the sheer importance of mapping. We tend to take this for granted living in a country where we can map pretty much anything down to a micro-image. We know almost every store, home or business along the way. This is clearly not the case for most of the world. As Banick said, “We take for granted that in the US we can see a map of any city and all the buildings but that isn’t a reality in most of the rest of the world”.

This has a profound impact on how organizations and individuals can address development needs across the globe. It even impacts how you handle a day-to-day emergency. In the US we take for granted how prepared fire departments are in response to emergencies. They know the quickest routes and how to get in and out with limited chaos. This isn’t the case for towns like Lira in Northern Uganda where buildings are huddled close to one another and mapping failed to provide easy routes for addressing fires adequately and timely. If there isn’t mapping, there might not even be general knowledge of which building is on fire. This is a simple thing that we forget. This is exactly where we see “first world problems”. It isn’t in our joking memes about not getting to check status updates, but the lack of understanding of what basic things like mapping have provided our society.

The current scandal regarding the missing Malaysian plane brought much of this to my attention. We live in a society that has gotten so accustomed to knowing where everything is a moments notice. Although this particular example involves things outside of mapping, it still addresses this mentality. It sometimes takes extraneous cases to rattle us and remind us that knowing everything’s location and whereabouts is a luxury, not a norm.

Social Media Gone Wrong

Social media has become the new “it” thing for our generation. While it was created to allow the public to voice their opinions, it has be said that social media is being taken too far. This influx of social media as part of our daily lives has created problems, especially in disaster situations.

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A recent major problem associated with this was the Boston Marathon bombings. Twitter and Facebook allowed everyone to get involved quickly. From the second the bombs went off, the American public was quick to post what they thought had happened. However, a number of problems arose from this. Without information, people posted that there were four bombs instead of two, that the death count was much higher, and that a library had been targeted. There were also posts that started naming people as potential bombers based on little or no evidence. This led to the New York Post posting a cover shot of 2 men who were the “prime suspects” when really, neither men were suspects.

The Boston Marathon Bombings allowed social media to be so problematic because there were thousands of people at the marathon, most of whom had smart phones. That meant that the amount of data available to the public was too much to ignore. Once information got to the Internet, everyone wanted a chance to play the game of “who is the Boston Marathon Bomber?”

The false information and tips released on the Internet created widespread panic. However, others argue that the access to social media allowed the public to stay informed faster than they would have through cable TV alone. For example, when the Boston Police Department engaged in a gunfight with the two brothers in Massachusetts, people were able to watch live streams of police scanners and read others’ ideas from Reddit and Twitter.

While the availability of social media may be good at keeping the public informed during disaster situations, there needs to be a closer watch on what information is released during disasters. Although it is difficult to monitor social media sites, there should be someone (or a group of people) hired to make sure that the information released is correct. While we were lucky that the false information on social media during the Boston Marathon Bombing did not have long-term negative effects, this may not be the case in the future. It is important to have tabs kept on social media so that the next disaster is not even more problematic.

Read more about The Boston Marathon’s social media response here.

An Overview of why Radio is so Important in the Developing World

In this week’s assigned readings we focused on why Radio is such a crucial ICT to the field of development. One of this week’s reading “Why Radio Matters Making: the case for radio as a medium for development” written by Dr. Mary Myers and commissioned by Developing Radio Partners, emphasize the importance of radio for many different aspects of life and development. According to Myers, Radio is by far the most prevalent mass- medium throughout the developing world. Myers discusses the impact of radio in times of emergencies, education, and empowerment. According to her in emergency and disaster situations “radio is an invaluable tool” (Myers   2).  With the help of the radio survivors can sometimes be informed of their loved ones whereabouts as well as different locations to access food, shelter and medical aid. Radio’s can also help evacuate certain areas that may be affected by a natural disaster. Certain radio shows, even one’s that are fiction based, can have a strong impact on helping reduce trauma caused by disasters. According to the author UNDP supported a radio program after the tsunami in Indonesia. “The trauma radio show had 30 counselors who worked closely with the community and had one of the highest audience ratings in the region” (Myers   3).  Topics would vary but would mainly direct mental trauma such as how to control your emotions.

Although in the developing world radio is considered a device for entertainment it can also very easily educate. In this paper, Mary Myers describes various ways radio is used to educate throughout the world. One example she uses to support her claim is an example of a radio program used as a strategy to teach farmers in rural areas new farming methods. Certain studies showed that there a lot of farmers listening to the broadcast listened to the advice that was given on the show and indeed did improve the agricultural fields in the country discussed.  Radio shows can also educate individuals especially women about certain health risks and factors.  A fiction radio soap opera has the power to educate women listening to their show about several issues regarding sexual and reproductive health as well as child and parent relationships. According to a study 85% of respondents who listened to such a program have implemented changes in their lives as a result of the knowledge they learned by the radio show (Myers   7).  Myers does indeed justify her statement that radio really does matter.

In response to Dr. Mary Myers paper I further researched radios and development. I found an organization that focuses on using radio technologies as a mode to help improve education in the developing world. This grass- root humanitarian organization Ears To Our World (ETOW) specializes in the distribution of radios primarily to children and teachers. In their mission statement ETOW claims that their mission is “ to enable children and their support networks in the most remote, impoverished parts of the world to receive educational programming, local and international news, emergency and health information as well as music and arts programming through the use of shortwave radio receivers. While our primary focus is on schools, our reach now encompasses other community facilities, the visually impaired, and, when required, disaster relief ” (ETOW). Ears To Our World is just a few of several non- profit organizations that focus on using radio and other ICTs as a tool to further development.

UNDP’s Tsunami Trauma Radio Programme

After reading Dr. Mary Myers’ article on “Why Radio Matters”, I decided to delve deeper and research one of the case studies she mentions in the “helps rebuild after disaster, trauma and war” section. I chose to highlight a radio program sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme that aimed to reduce tsunami trauma after the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia. The tsunami not only hurt people’s livelihoods and destroyed their lands but it contributed to thousands of deaths. All of this inflicted many psychological problems amongst the population.

UNDP’s program set out to assist the 13,000 displaced people after the 2004 tsunami. It was a “one-hour show, broadcast weekly on Saturdays at Dalka FM, the oldest and most popular station in the district”. The program had counselors that specifically worked with communities as it strived to be “grass-roots based”. The psychologists gave the audience suggestions on how to cope with the trauma they had experienced and with the stress they felt. The program addressed the following issues: “how to control emotions, family relations, worries about employment and income, housing conditions, as well as establishing a community support network.”

I think the ICT device chosen by UNDP for this program is smart. They understood who their audience was, those who were displaced, and the little access they had to ICTs. Radio, being the most affordable, able to affect the masses and accessible ICT, was the most intelligent of choices. One thing the article fails to mention is how successful the program was. If those displaced actually had access to radio, how popular was this program? Did it achieve its goals? Many times organizations do not check up on or monitor their projects. I do not know if that was the issue with this article or if UNDP simply just left the information out.

Case Study: Bangladesh. An impressive plan for disaster risk reduction using ICTs

Bangladesh is very vulnerable to natural disasters like floods, river erosion, tidal surges, tropical cyclones, and earthquakes due to the vast network of rivers and channels, the geographic location of the country, and the monsoon climate. Over the past 30 years, frequent natural disasters in Bangladesh have taken the lives of thousands of people and cost the country millions of dollars in damage. About 200,000 people are displaced each year due to river erosion alone. In order to prevent more tragedy in the future, Bangladesh has put much effort into developing effective “early warning systems” for disaster management and prevention.

Under their National ICT Policy, the following action agendas have been identified for disaster management:

–       Protect citizens from natural disasters through ICT-based disaster warning and management technologies

i. Utilize remote sensing technologies for disaster management and mitigation.

ii. Web-based environmental clearance certification system

iii. Promote cell phone/SMS-based disaster warning systems targeted to the population likely to be affected

iv. Utilize Geographic Information System (GIS)-based systems to monitor flood and cyclone shelters (including equitable distribution in vulnerable areas)

v. Promote efficient relief management and post-disaster activities monitoring

–       Utilize GIS-based systems to ensure equitable distribution of relief goods with special focus on the hard-to-reach areas (Halder & Ahmed, p. 55)

The Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) is leading the charge on these initiatives, in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh and over 100 technical and academic institutions and NGOs at all levels. Their main goal is to strengthen the disaster management system in Bangladesh, but more importantly to focus more heavily on risk reduction (largely through technical assistance) via community risk assessments and mapping, earthquake and tsunami storm surge mapping etc. The National Disaster Management Information Centre (DMIC) has been a key instrument for the CDMP. Together, they produced a very specific list of DMIC information products and media suited to support their disaster management objectives. (It was created based on the CDMP-DMIC needs assessment survey report, so it takes into consideration local ICT profiles, and penetration rates, and individual’s preferences).


(Halder & Ahmed p. 64)

Today, “The DMIC generates time-sensitive information items such as early warnings, situation reports and other real-time data, and presents them in information products delivered through communication channels that cause the least delay, and are consistent with the capacity of users to receive and comprehend them.” (p. 67). One way in which they are acting today is through an alert subscription system which allows individuals to receive early warning messages via email, SMS, or fax. Messages are even tailored to the subscriber’s specific location and local hazard concerns. The work that Bangladesh is doing to re-vamp their disaster management and prevention program is impressive, and their commitment to using ICTs to achieve their goals is paying off.

For more information on this case study (p. 52- 74) and others, click here.


I think one of the most important and critical applications of ICT is for disaster management and mitigation.  With the proper infrastructure, monitoring, and implementation, ICT for Disasters can save countless lives and speed up the rebuilding and recovering process.  As a case study, I am going to use our location – New Orleans, Louisiana – where we face the very real threat of hurricanes.

One of the most important steps anyone can take to mitigate the effects of disasters is preparation and preparedness.  Check out Get A Game Plan from the Louisiana Governor’s office – it has plans and essential info to get you prepared for the next storm.  You can also download the app on your iPhone!  Public campaigns through TV ads, Internet, Texts, etc can deliver helpful information and reminders.

Early warning systems (EWS) are key in making sure that people know when disasters are coming and what precautions to take.  EWS can be traditional (alarms, radio, TV, telephone) or modern (SMS, Internet, Apps).  With NOLA Ready, New Orleans residents can sign up to receive notifications via text, email, or phone call for evacuation information, weather advisories, infrastructure issues (water advisories, power outages), and traffic.  Have an iPhone?  With the WDSU Hurricane Central App, you can track tropical storms and hurricanes with satellite maps, up-to-date notifications, preparation checklists, and planning maps.

During a disaster, apps on your phone and other ICT options can keep you informed and safe.  They can also help connect you to loved ones.  Did you know?  During Hurricane Katrina, phone service was limited or unavailable, but SMS often still worked!  This is because SMS works on a different band, and can be sent and received even when service is down or congested.  Another plus is that you can text multiple people at once, which will save you battery power.

In the aftermath of disasters, online databases (check out Sahana) can help with missing persons and connecting people to NGOs and resources.  Satellite images can help identity damage and find those in need of help.

-Many of these devices are not used during the night hours and often powered off, which reduces effectiveness
-ICT usually requires a power source, which can be cut off during an emergency!  Back up batteries or generators are suggested.
-Not everyone has access to ICT!
-There must be coordination between governments, NGOs, and the public
-There must be proper and adequate infrastructure, that is somewhat standardized compatible with these technologies
-People have to use it!  Having ICTs in place does no good if people do not take advantage!

Do you know of any tools and tips that I missed?

Disaster Management & ICT

One topic that we haven’t covered in class, that really interests me, is the role that ICT plays in both predicting and preparing for disasters, but also during disasters, especially in developing countries where infrastructure is already so fragile. According to an article by the UN, satellite and Geographic Information Systems technology has been incredibly useful in mapping when and where it is likely that a natural disaster will take place. These satellite initiatives have mostly been taken upon by large international or intergovernmental organizations, and even some federal governments (one example being China) are getting involved with funding and perpetuating projects that will better help monitor disaster and environment issues.

Another example of the usefulness of investment in satellite technology is in Afghanistan, where using both satellite data and word of mouth was able to compile statistics about the amount of lost crops, and develop an early warning system for droughts. This also helped Afghanistan considerably in getting food aid as they waited out the drought, by providing tangible evidence to outside donors. The availability and accessibility of this type of satellite imagery also proved extremely useful during reconstruction after disasters, by providing tangible images of the most remote areas that aren’t accessible by roads, and giving relief workers and development officials a more complete image of what will be needed for reconstruction and rebuilding. While the usefulness of this type of technology for developing countries is immeasurable, it is also a technology that is not accessible to smaller nonprofits or individuals within the communities, and it is not clear how effectively the large organizations and federal governments disseminate this information to the public. Making this type of technology more accessible is an issue that may not be easily solved, because of the technical experience required to maintain certain systems, but this means in Afghanistan (for example), the farmers, while they benefitted because of the aid that came because of satellite research, were not privy to what government officials saw as causing and perpetuating the drought, as well as not being able to access the images that explained exactly what was going on. The article does acknowledge the usefulness of certain communication technologies during disasters though. Radios especially are highlighted as being key to the perpetuation of relief activities. Not only was it key for communication between aid workers, it also proved useful during the earthquake in Pradang, Indonesia, when the mayor got access to the last surviving cell phone tower and was able to broadcast messages to the public and maintain a sense of order amidst the crazy atmosphere that exists post-disaster.


The Spread of Mobile Reporting Platforms as a Means of Community Empowernment

In our last class we read the “ICT4D Manifesto” by Richard Heeks which in its conclusion discussed the most recent advancement in the ICT4D movement, ICT4D 2.0. The 2.0 version is characterized by utilizing existing technology in a successful way in a region instead of trying to create wholly new technology and then apply it to a region. This led me to remembering a project I worked on last year for a health policy graduate class in which we researched the global implications of counterfeit drug production.

Traditionally, counterfeit drugs have been combated by governments and policies in a top down approach, however, recently the WHO in Southeast Asia. The program closely resembles one described in a video “TEDTalks” that we watched in class as well. In the video the program Ushahidi was described, which is a disaster reporting platform in which areas where violence or disasters are occurring can be mapped through the collation of information reported by individuals on the ground. The WHO’s program in Southeast Asia uses a mobile reporting platform to report cases of counterfeit drugs, similar to Ushahidi. These reports are then collated at the national level and released to the public so they can monitor where counterfeit drugs are being sold. Once a case is confirmed it is also logged into the WHO database. The program has been greatly effective in limiting community’s exposures to harmful counterfeit medicines. This kind of publically powered community based reporting model is becoming more and more prevalent as tools to disseminate information to the masses in an easy to understand format. This technology encompasses the ideals of “ICT4D2.0” because it uses existing mobile and computer technologies in a new way to empower communities to take action to protect themselves, from fake drugs, violence, or natural disasters.

See a description of Rapid Alert System (RAS) for reporting counterfeit drugs here– http://www.wpro.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs_20050503/en/index.html