Reporting back: a blog by John Warnes of the CDAC Network Secretariat on the Network's 101 Seminar on Social Media in Emergencies.
'The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.'
George Bernard Shaw
With this poignant thought we left our latest 101 Seminar on Social Media in Emergencies, hosted by Plan UK, after Mike Adams, INTL Coordinator at First Response Radio and Jacobo Quintanilla, Director of Humanitarian Communication Programmes at Internews, spoke following their recent return from the Philippines.
While aid agency staff can be successful in setting up broadcast radio in difficult circumstances, the communities themselves don’t always have access to the correct radio equipment, or are in the right locations to receive life-saving messages. Mike and Jacobo illustrated how aid agency staff need to think beyond technology and actively engage with local communities in order to ensure these messages are heard and that they have the opportunity to provide feedback to those assisting them.
This real-life lesson acted as a perfect complement to the earlier parts of the seminar that led the participants through theory and case studies based on real situations, providing a true '101' experience and challenging their preconceptions about how to use social media in emergency situations.
First up was Greg Barrow, Director of the UK office for the World Food Programme (WFP), with an insightful introduction that presented the personal story of a Japanese woman named Nayoko and her situation following the earthquake there in 2012. Through a chain of emails to relatives and then targeted tweets from her son in London, she was eventually rescued by the authorities in Japan – something that would not have been possible without social media. Greg went on to say, 'We used to rely on journalists, now we’re getting unique, unfiltered information in real-time. It’s immediate and hasn’t been reworked or even censored before it reaches us.' Greg gave a practical example of how Patrick Meier and his team analysed 20,000 social media posts in 24 hours using crowdsourcing techniques. He mentioned, as was to be later reiterated by the team returning from the Philippines, that it may not be one hundred percent accurate but in emergency situations saving time is saving lives, and getting a ball-park figure through techniques such as this is better than sitting on your hands and not taking action. Our second speaker, Anahi Ayala Iacucci, Senior Innovation Advisor at Internews, outlined the myriad challenges on using social media in emergencies, stating that while impact has not been thoroughly researched and evaluated, almost all acknowledge the critical role that it plays. Case studies are the best thing to illustrate this and thus the afternoon session of the 101 would comprise of three distinct case studies.
Later Anahi illustrated some common fallacies in how organisations approach social media. 'Everybody wants to jump onto the social media bandwagon but many organisations don’t think it through fully before they start using it. Each country has its own context and organisations have to adapt to the social media platforms and habits of the particular country.'
Anahi then took the participants through some key lessons about social media such as finding the right #hashtag, appropriate platforms and weighting the effectiveness of certain Twitter users. She went on to demonstrate the requirements for organisations in order to successfully engage on social media platforms providing some key lessons and resources.
In the afternoon session the participants got the chance apply what they had learnt with some case studies. The first outlined a challenging situation in Syria which required teams to formulate a strategy on how to engage with displaced communities to build trust, reinforce the neutrality of the organisation and provide information on food delivery. This scenario was particularly challenging due to variation in social media access within the country, a highly sensitive media landscape and the mobility of the displaced communities who also resided in neighbouring countries. This resulted in lively discussion and generated some unique suggestions such as mobilising diaspora of the affected population through social media to pass on messages and information to their loved ones.
The second case study built on the first, utilising a real situation where an unverified and disturbing video was posted on the Facebook page of an organisation relating to the crisis in Syria. This challenge led to many divergent opinions from the participants, none right or wrong but all illustrating the need for a clear social media policy and ensuring that staff have the ability to deal with these challenging situations on social media platforms.
The final case study was a brief exploration of how a fraudster utilised Twitter during an earthquake in Chili, resulting in a waste of police resources and time.
The session was closed by Mike Adams from First Response Radio and Jacobo Quintanilla from Internews. Mike had been on the ground in the Philippines at the time of the disaster and – following confirmation that his team was needed – was able to travel to Tacloban and set up a complete radio system within 72 hours. Jacobo, with Internews colleagues, managed to utilise social media to map the immediate needs of citizens in a variety of locations around the Philippines, illustrating its potential in real situations to help the aid efforts on the ground.
The day was jam-packed with vital information for any organisation operating in disaster situations that is using social media. One participant said, 'In the past, every time we used Twitter it was for fundraising efforts. From this seminar I’ve learnt it has a great capacity to help affected communities and is something that can be integrated into programmes to make them more efficient.'
Another participant said the workshop helped him understand that good use of social media is all about transparency and that aid agencies need to publish their guidelines and policies on their websites, so that they can refer to them publicly if a situation calls for it.
About the 101 Series
The CDAC Network '101 Seminar Series' is designed to build the capacity of members by improving information sharing amongst Members and the wider humanitarian community. The seminars utilise the expertise and experience of Members who educate the broader community through face-to-face seminars. Attendance: CDAC Network Members have priority, but events are open to others to attend.