The potential for social media to transform what happens in responses to emergencies and disasters was outlined by CDAC Network Director, Marian Casey-Maslen, who said the platforms provided an example of aid ‘happening without us’. People can publish needs, offer assistance, arrange money transfers and fundraise abroad (diaspora), and criticise authorities without the need for ‘us’ to speak for them or in their name. It was essential, she went on to say, that this complex process is better recognised and understood, both at a time of crisis but also for emergency planning, ‘without trying to insert ourselves as an essential conduit’.
On the panel were representatives from Facebook, Internews Europe, the UNICEF Innovation Unit and a member of the protection team of UNHCR in Lebanon, which uses and monitors social media activity amongst more than a million Syrian refugees living there.
Molly Jackman of Facebook leads a group that undertakes policy research. She and Erica Kochi of UNICEF described a collaboration over the outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil. The social media data showed that, contrary to expectations, most information was being sought by men interested in controlling the mosquito and not by expectant mothers. The messaging was therefore orientated toward men and vector control, and research findings showed that 82% of people changed their actions in some way. Insights were also given about how Facebook decides on such collaborations with humanitarian agencies, and some possible assistance to programmers in the future.
In a crisis Facebook does, Ms. Jackman said, recognise a certain responsibility to help but feel it is better to see what is already happening and build on that. The organisation has developed approaches that mean whatever research is finally agreed has to go through a review process and a privacy assessment that involves lawyers. Evaluation is done ‘on a case by case basis’. To a specific question from the floor about the possibility of providing ‘connectivity intelligence’ in the immediate aftermath of a disaster so the most useful channels for information and communication are recognised immediately. Ms. Jackman said this is something they take seriously and ‘the long term vision is to have a number of companies contribute to this commons with data that is scrubbed of personal information. This is something we know is missing and that it is valuable’.
The widespread and growing use of social media by humanitarian organisations was demonstrated by the other contributions. Anahi Ayala from Internews told of the development of ‘rumour tracking’ during the Ebola crisis in West Africa and how techniques have been developed further in the European refugee crisis. Joseph Sargi from UNHCR in Lebanon said that it is difficult to track what is happening after release of message to fifteen focal points for dissemination, and what is missing is a tool that allows one message to go to many different channel. Scams are a daily challenge and so are ways to extract data. ‘We have’, he said, ‘ so many requests posted, but have no way of triaging messages and getting it sent to the right person for follow up action.’
The Humanitarian ICT Forum was organised by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. And was held 21-22 March 2017 at Google Headquarters, Mountain View, California.