Twitter won’t last long, I wouldn’t bother with it.
This was the advice I remember receiving a couple of years ago at a communications conference with a speaker from a respected PR company.
But as the current situation in Egypt demonstrates; social media is fast changing the way we engage with each other on a personal, national and global scale. Less than an hour ago I did a Twitter search to find out the latest about the Jan 25 revolution and since then there’s been almost 10,000 new tweets.
If you want to get real-time information about events going on around the corner or across the world, Twitter is where it’s at. Hmmm, I wonder how that PR woman’s career is going these days…
Where social media started off as a great new way to network in our personal lives, its value is being increasingly harnessed by businesses – and the business of humanitarian work can’t afford to be left behind.
Although it’s often the poorest countries who are worst hit by disasters, more often than not, victims of disasters have cell phones and its a resource that needs to be better tapped into, to save lives.
New innovations in social and mobile technologies are having a huge impact on how we deal with emergencies, including early warning and preparedness, as well as disaster and post-disaster environments.
In Haiti and Pakistan we are seeing an increasing number of people using social media to contact the British Red Cross directly. When the Pakistan floods set in last August one Pakistani man left a message on our Posterous blog asking how he could help.
As a result, and within 24 hours of posting his comment, he was volunteering with our logistics emergency response unit providing invaluable help with the distribution of life-saving relief goods.
After the earthquake in Haiti, a hospital ran out of supplies and a local ‘tweeter’ contacted the British Red Cross via Twitter identifying the hospital’s needs and location with GPS co-ordinates. We then contacted Rapid UK who were able to respond quickly to the situation.
When Port-au-Prince was reduced to rubble, lack of information about Haiti’s capital hampered the emergency response. But a collaborative project by OpenStreetMap, two satellite firms and people on the streets in Port-au-Prince provided daily updates to aid workers and rescuers, helping them navigate their way through the city.
As climate change takes its toll and disasters around the world increase in both scale and frequency, it’s important we begin nurturing more productive partnerships between humanitarian actors and the private sector.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is currently working with Voila, a wireless subsidiary of Trilogy International Partners, who have pioneered a new messaging application to help fight cholera in Haiti. It is the first of its kind globally and allows the Red Cross to send customised text messages via SMS to phone users in defined geographic areas – unlike traditional SMS services, which require broadcast messages be delivered to every sub¬scriber on a carrier’s network.
Using the new service, the Red Cross can pro¬vide Haitians with advice and offers of aid that are relevant to their particular circumstances; that capability has driven unprecedented response rates, with life-saving consequences.
Also in partnership with Trilogy International, the Red Cross set up free-phone hotlines for people to be better informed or to register feedback on our service delivery. Our messages have reached more than 360,000 people on an issue as sensitive as sexual violence for instance, with more than 10 per cent of that number responding directly to our offer of support and help – this is a staggering suc¬cess in a 24-hour timeframe with minimal human resources, and demonstrates how mobile technologies are bringing enormous added value to humanitarian operations.
At its core, this approach is about delivering potentially life-saving information into the hands of the people who need it most. Importantly, it is also about enabling populations affected by disaster to channel critical data about their situation and needs to aid agencies, thereby increasing the speed, relevance and effectiveness of aid.
In Haiti, this initiative is being carried out in close collaboration and partnership with Trilogy International, as well as a consortium of non-governmental organisations and media development organisations including OCHA, Save the Children, Internews and BBC World Service Trust.
If we want to prevent the huge loss of lives and livelihoods that we’ve seen in the mega-disasters of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods then the international response needs to get smarter with all stakeholders working ever closer together.
Ps If you’re still in doubt and wondering could a tweet really help save a life? It can, and it has. Check out this story.
Pps I stole that last line from a great article about social media on the American Red Cross website.
Ppps For anyone who can’t get enough of this subject, here’s a new presentation on digital disasters published on Scribd.
Pppps Please check out our latest video on Haiti by the numbers. Okay, I’m done.
Photo 1 © Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, courtesy alertnet.org
Photo 2 © Red Cross/ECHO
Photo 3 © Olivier Matthys/IFRC