Irin - ICT Africa News
BY ELIZABETH BLUNT, 28 OCTOBER 2013
London — Recent innovations have offered a whole new box of tools to the humanitarian community. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) - at the end of a year that has fortunately seen relatively few disasters - is using the latest edition of its annual World Disasters Report to showcase some of the technological advancements being put to use in emergencies, and to start a discussion on their potential benefits and pitfalls.
The report, launched this month, reveals how raw data from phone companies is being used to track sudden population movements, and how satellite imaging is being used to show the physical effects of natural disasters in areas otherwise beyond reach. Doctors from the diaspora are using Skype to guide medical treatment in parts of Syria they cannot travel to, and Google Person Finder is being used to reunite families - a high-tech solution to what was one of the oldest functions of the Red Cross.
Growing mobile phone saturation is also changing humanitarians' relationships with beneficiaries. By next year, there are expected to be as many phone subscriptions as there are people on the planet. Aid agencies use mobile phones to reach people in need, transfer cash, warn of approaching problems, and identify those killed or badly injured in disasters - and increasingly, aid recipients are using their phones to talk back to the aid workers.
In every recent emergency, the airwaves have crackled with data, as people frantically send messages to their loved ones, to the authorities and to the world via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They pass along news, calls for help and pictures of damage. Now an army of digital volunteers has sprung up, offering to collate, translate and, where necessary, geolocate this torrent of data.
DIY disaster relief
It is an exciting development, but also a scary one, especially for aid workers who are less technically minded, and at a meeting last week at London's Overseas Development Institute (ODI), both enthusiasm and nervousness were on display.
While new technologies have yielded some changes to disaster response, and a lot of rethinking, many in the humanitarian community are simply not early adopters. Today, it is common to arrive at a disaster scene and find that local people are well ahead of humanitarian agencies in using whatever technology is best suited to their situation.