In Haiti, social networking ecosystem links victims, reporters and aid agencies


imageEven as an earthquake shook the Caribbean nation of Haiti and levelled its capital, bridges were being built.

Social networks enabled by the Internet connected on-the-ground reporting efforts and authentic voices of the Haitian people with an active local and international audience, enabling people around the world to contribute to rescue, relief and recovery efforts in a horizontal fashion.

This ecosystem proves that the use of social networking tools, added to the traditional toolbox utilised by reporters, can facilitate a bridge between news media audiences and people impacted by tragic circumstances like earthquake, war or tsunami.

For people on the ground, social media networks provide a way to connect with emergency workers who are trying to provide aid and resources where most needed. Online social networks can also lead impacted citizens to news reporters or bloggers with established audiences looking to add authentic voices to their coverage (and vice versa).

Giving the inhabitants of Haiti access to social network communication utilities cannot but help them to help themselves. Further, participative citizens at a time of deep public concern and trouble.

Thanks to both SMS and the Internet, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and the crisis-mapping group Ushahidi (“testimony” in Swahili) have been flooded with practical information about logistics and requests for help. Ushahidi in particular is transforming the way aid agencies conceive sharing and responding to information about urgent needs in the aftermath of this devastating earthquake, defends Ms Waugaman.
Providing people with a public voice is also a good example of how established media outlets can indeed bridge the gap between the public and news-gathering — as long as principles of truth and accuracy always remain present.

Social media background

Social networking has spent recent years migrating outside high-tech business arenas like Silicon Valley to reach the mainstream. The 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos included a discussion on the growth of social networks, among a number of other technology focused panels.

Social networks are two-way communication channels that enable us to do what we have always done: communicating, connecting and building relationships. The growing influence of these web tools, though, has raised numerous discussions about its leveraged implications for individuals and society.

The role played by the new social networking in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti brings to the table another major issue: the importance of SMS and social networks in crisis coverage.

A new way for eyewitness reporting

Some of the first footage illustrating the wake of the earthquake in Haiti did not come from big news organisations or TV broadcasters, but from civilians on the ground capturing video with mobile phones.

With the collapse of the traditional channels and the landlines of the country badly damaged, social networks accessible via SMS soon became the primary means for reporters and aid workers trying to keep the information flowing between Haitians and the rest of the world.

A few years ago this new way of keeping citizens informed about natural disasters would have been unthinkable. Development of technology has made it possible, as has fast adaptation by people in the less developed areas of the world.

The same platforms are valuable tools for tools for reporters to describe what they witness instantly and in real time. Nevertheless some media professionals had not even embraced them before getting to Haiti.

“I had a hunch that it could be a powerful reporting tool but I’d never really tested it out,” said Guardian correspondent Ed Pilkington, who was reporting from Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Facebook and Twitter appear to be custom-made for journalists reporting live during a rescue operation or a drive around the scene of a disaster in the back of a pick-up truck. In comparison to traditional reporting, in which most of the information does not see the light of day and ends up confined to a journalist’s notepad.

“Twitter unleashed all and put it out there as I was seeing it,” Pilkington said.

“It allows you to do the immediate description, the instant thought, the undigested gut reaction to awful sights that were in front of me.”

Social networking sites can work side-by-sideimage with traditional storytelling methods, the British journalist said, saying he would “vote for them as a tandem” and not as competitors.

Aid agencies: New role

Aid agencies cannot fail to take advantage of the power of these new tools.

Adele Waugaman, head of the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, believes “aid agencies should also participate with a different approach and help to redefine what could be the use of technology in a disaster.”

Instances in which crowd-sourced information has become an excellent means of organising a good response to a humanitarian emergency have already been identified in the report, New Technologies in Emergencies & Conflicts compiled by the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.

Use of innovative tools for one-to-many communications are crucial for response and delivery of practical and useful information during a crisis.

“It used to be that information-sharing in disasters was largely looked at as a one-way information transfer from relief groups to affected communities,” says Waugaman said.

“Increasingly, through, technologies that allow for crowd-sourced information, affected communities themselves are becoming a critical source of information in disaster response.”

However providing people with these tools and co-ordinating their use in effected areas should lead to a change in the structure and the way relief and aid organisations have traditionally operated and.

“The World Food Programme’s Global Partnership for Emergency Communications with the Vodafone Foundation and the United Nations Foundation is providing specialised training that specifically addresses the unique needs of information and communication technologies ‘first responders,’” Waugaman said.

Trust in social networking

Information is valuable only if it can be trusted.

For Adele Waugaman, verification of crowd-sourced data “remains a challenge to bringing this kind of innovation to scale.”

What needs to be clarified in the future is how to overcome the risks that accompany amplification of real time, unfiltered information. As a proof of what this challenge represents imageCNN, which seems to be the media organisation with the most material on the disaster, published a mashup of crowd-sourced of information making clear that CNN has not been able to verify it.

Ushahidi could be a good example to follow. Its founders are working to develop a service called SwiftRiverthat validates crowded-source information surrounding a crisis, be it press releases from aid agencies or tweets of ordinary people.

Social networking spaces are so powerful when it comes to sharing immediate information that journalists may become part of the story they are telling. This fact definitely triggers a riveting debate in which the interests of news organisations could clash with moral issues: Should journalists deployed to the scenario follow their human ethics or pursue their media objectives in search of the most impacting story?

During the Haiti aftermath it was quite amazing to witness media professionals had been acting as an intermediary for aid workers and impacted locals pleading for help through Twitter or SMS.

For as much as the chroniclers would have liked to have grabbed hold of their notebooks or cameras they could not avoid being active participants helping among all the debris. Nothing short of a natural human instinct.

Not to be forgotten

While the earthquake’s impact in Haiti is one of the most widely told stories in the world at the moment, it is just a matter of time until interest wanes and disaster footage is shelved in the archives section.

The number of journalists and reporters deployed to the damaged country is already scaling down. Soon only major news agencies will provide the day-to-day information from the struggling Caribbean state.

As repeatedly announced by world leaders and international organizations, what really matters are long-term consequences. Its is not an exaggeration to state that Haiti will have to wait at least 10 years to announce its recovery. Who will talk in the future about the reconstruction of Haitian public institutions? How about the needs of hundred of thousands of people expected to be relocated to rural areas?

As it all unfolds, social media led by SMS and Internet can play a crucial role.

Flickr images from users ifrc, geographypages, cambodia4kidsorg