Social media as humanitarian aid

How people are using the web to assist emergency responders during disasters

The Nepal earthquake is just one of several recent events that has harnessed the power of social media to document a disaster as it’s happening. It’s not a new concept, but it continues to become more prevalent as technology improves worldwide. What’s especially fascinating about this movement is that it’s largely driven by amateurs and citizen journalists; major news sources are looking to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for updates from people who are actually there witnessing these events as they happen. For emergency responders, these efforts to document, share and communicate can help aid in response plans, and people around the world can go online and assist remotely.

Here are three notable ways people are using social media and crowdsourced data to help aid emergency response efforts in Nepal.

Status updates

Facebook launched a new feature that allows for people at the scene of a disaster to essentially “check in” as safe. This not only gives their friends and family some relief, but it cuts down on the amount of people who need to be counted as missing persons. This helps responders look for people who are actually missing, and it doesn’t tie up much-needed phone lines or radio frequencies for people trying to connect with their loved ones.

Collaborative maps

Mapping out disasters originally began as a response to fires in cities; habitants could hop onto Google Maps and help document areas of their city that may be damaged or dangerous, or could be a safe zone for those temporarily evacuated. Collaborative and crowdsourced maps have subsequently become a reliable and interactive way to help responders. CityLab covered this phenomenon in depth, and services like Tomnod and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap lets amateur cartographers update maps as disasters unfold.

As with much amateur online work, parts of the Tomnod campaign feel frustratingly ineffectual — a little bit like a way for people with all the privileges of internet access to feel good about doing little. As CityLab pointed out Monday, professional mappers are already volunteering to map Nepal’s devastated areas through the open-source mapping platform OpenStreetMap, where their more sophisticated skill sets give them a better chance to help humanitarians on the ground, and more quickly.
— “How Amateur Mappers Are Helping Recovery Efforts In Nepal” by CityLab

Drone footage

Drones operated by amateurs provided a bird’s eye view of damaged areas in Nepal — without having to send responders in until an area is surveyed. Footage like this can be quickly broadcasted to the rest of the world, and like mapping, can help document and showcase the damage of buildings or surrounding environment. While responders still enter into dangerous areas to search for people, it can still help prevent unnecessary injury by scouting out places where people may be missing.

These crowdsourced efforts, in conjunction with networks like Facebook and Twitter, can potentially help save lives by assisting first responders and mitigating some of the danger they themselves face. There’s not enough research yet quantifying this impact, but it presents an opportunity for researchers to investigate this, and potentially integrate more ways for people around the world to help during a disaster. •

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