39 comments on “Analysis: Social Media and Humanitarian Response

  1. Wow, this is a brilliant and really clear overview that outlines the many angles and ways that social media and new tech is changing and improving and frightening large organizations all at once. I think this area is one that really needs more thinking and developing within INGOs. It starts to really blur also the roles of the frontline staff, communities, programs, communications, PR, marketing, and donors/supporters in ways that a lot of agencies are not understanding or realizing that they need to seriously look at. Bravo, and I will definitely be sharing this around with my internal/external network. Thanks for writing it up!

  2. Thanks Linda. I think one of the key issues that NGOs need to recognize is the shrinking space for a middle-man when the donor can, via social media, connect directly to the recipient- an experience which people are more likely to find rewarding and which is where people are going to step away from NGOs as their conduit into the aid world. NGOs need to be able to compete with this reality if they hope to maintain their presence here. This is especially important given that the removal of the middle-man may not actually be beneficial for communities where there is donor ignorance- although by the same token, direct contact can be a powerful catalyst for mutual education under the right circumstances and should be facilitated where appropriate.

  3. PS- thanks for reading through- I’m under no illusions that this post needs an executive summary! 🙂

  4. As a student interested in global health and wanting to learn more about it…what books would you recommend as required reading for such a career?

    • Hi Sarah,

      I’m afraid I’m not clued in enough to global health literature. If you contact Michael Keizer (his blog, A Humourless Lot, is linked in my blogroll) he has a background in health logistics and may be able to put you on to people better clued in.

      One must-read for anybody interested in humanitarian aid work (and which has a health bent) is the fantastic book “War Hospital” by Sheri Fink. It’s about the hospital in Srebrenica during the civil war in Yugoslavia which was staffed by MSF doctors and local volunteers in the midst of the ethnic cleansing and breakdown of humanitarian protection, and showcases the failure of the UN and other organizations in the face of a building genocide- compelling reading and incredibly important to understand.

  5. As a student interested in global health what books would you recommend as required reading for such a career?

  6. I’m so happy to see this posted. I have friends in the global health field. The challenges are enormous. Social media is such a powerful tool and could make huge differences around the world.

  7. An amazing post! You highlight the practical application of social media that often goes unnoticed by most. Social media has definitely become more instrumental in emergency response today than it ever has. We’ve come a long way from the ham radio days!

    As you pointed out, the recipe for success and improvement in this arena is finding that balance between raw, credible, and useful data. I imagine information overload is a major issue that hampers effective disaster response, especially during the early stages of response. As technology evolves that makes it easier for the end user to pass information, the technology that makes it easier to catalogue, and later retrieve, useful information must also evolve. Useful information is useless if it’s lost in a sea of data. This rings true at all levels of disaster response, from the rescuer at the scene looking for buried victims up to the donors wanting to know if their contribution is making a difference before they sign that next check. Thank you for the well written, informative post!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re right- data management on a range of levels has to improve. The issue in the early days of the response is a curious blend between too much chatter (i.e. noise which needs filtering to find what is truly useful), and a dearth of information (as we found in the early days of Haiti, when nobody could clearly articulate what exactly was happening because it was just too overwhelming). As you say, cataloguing data is a serious challenge- you only need to try searching for something you want on Google to find this out- and the amount of information which is ‘lost’ amidst the clutter is probably immense. Big challenges ahead- as you’d expect with any system as vast and unregulated as the internet- but I think there are great solutions and creativity ahead out there. I think the key is to remain adaptable, and plugged into the changes in technology as they occur. Cheers.

  8. Spectacular post and great photography. I am attempting to dive into social and multi-media, but getting started is overwhelming. I am the editor in chief of my college newspaper and I know it is important to get a jump on social media. I hired a social media editor, but neither of us really know how to expand beyond just tweeting about story ideas and breaking news. Any recommendations or books I should read?

    • Hi Cristalyne and thanks for your message. Great that you’re getting involved in social media. I’m pretty new to it all myself, so still finding my way. Related to what I mentioned in the post, I think you need to look at a few main questions around how to engage with networking (which is what it sounds like you’re facing at the moment)- a) what are you hoping to achieve via social networking (higher readership levels? greater interactivity with existing readers? a forum for creating new ideas? staying on top of current events?) b) who do you need to be linked to on Twitter/networks to achieve this goal (online readership communities? students from your college? other college newspaper editors? news sources?) c) what level of interaction do you want to achieve your goal (do I want just people reading what you post/tweet? do I want people linking back to your online resources? do you want people engaging you in online discussion forums? do you want people engaging with you in the real-world?) d) how can you be relevant to the people you want to engage with- assuming you are wanting people to follow you (what is my target audience interested in? what sort of engagement are they interested in?).

      If you can answer those questions, you can be more strategic in what you post/tweet, in who you follow, and in finding key, well-networked contacts who you can link to and hopefully mobilize networks via.

      If you (or your paper) has a blog (or an online version), make sure you’re linking back to it with updates regularly, and sharing these updates with the people who are interested in what you’re sharing. Keeping content current and fresh for your readership is essential to maintain presence and credibility (and it’s a miracle that this blog still gets readership given the amount of time I sometimes neglect it!)

      All the best!

  9. Pingback: Analysis: Social Media and Humanitarian Response (via WanderLust) « Blogging Sessions 3.0

  10. This is absolutely correct and why I love social media. We get access to the information and are able to highlight what we believe are the most important underlying issues. We have a voice lol

  11. Hello! I stumbled upon your blog today and I think what you are doing is simply wonderful. Thank you for taking the time to write the post.

  12. This was an extremely thorough article (I wonder if it’s been submitted to a major newspaper or maybe the Huffington Post?). I felt like I was reading something that wasn’t a nonchalant musing out of someone’s head, but a cogent collection of ideas written in an intentional way.

    I want to thank you for publishing this. Your words have sparked me to be a little more intentional with who I (not my moniker, but the person behind the moniker) follow on facebook. Currently, I have been following no one, but why not jig it such that I get information about the people I feel are making positive change in the world: Bruce Lipton, Lynne McTaggart, Candace Pert, Nassim Haramein, etc.


    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

    • Thanks Jeremiah for your encouraging and thoughtful message, and I think your approach is a great one- tag people who you feel are going to add value to your interactions and lifestyle. No, I haven’t submitted to HuffPo (I’ve never actually looked into publishing through them, as a non-journalist it’s never occured to me), and you certainly weren’t reading a nonchalant musing (and thanks for noticing 🙂 )- This has been pulled together based on several months’ worth of experience and discussion with other aid professionals and social networkers, media and communications professional, and several hours sunk into creating a presentation for colleagues. In fact, it’s written first and foremost as a resource for those colleagues to use in their own time, and is a direct follow-up to the workshop session that I ran. I’m pleased people have found it useful/interesting. Thanks for your time.

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  14. Excellent post! You described so well some practical applications of social media. I had the same experience last year when there was a big storm and flooding in Manila. I found myself monitoring the ongoing disaster and response through Facebook and Twitter from here in the US. I read request for help, updates from people being affected by flooding in their homes while the event was occurring. I realized it was better than traditionally media. This way you hear it straight from the people. You see them post pictures and videos showing how the water and the storm affected their homes and communities. A lot of people responded using social media to call for assistance and contribute assistance. I did a blog post at that time (http://mysimpleprocesses.com/2009/09/27/manila-flood-disaster-update-social-media-as-channel-for-disaster-coordination/) and made a personal plea for donations…we were able to collect a humble sum. I am sharing this because I experienced it myself- how social media can be both a platform and enabler for an effective and rapid humanitarian response to disaster situations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is great!

    • Thanks for your feedback Glenn, and great that you chose to use your social network for good. Thanks too for sharing the link to your own article- you’ve neatly captured the process as it unfolded back in September. In fact, I was in Manila a couple of days after Ketsana/Ondoy passed (hence referencing it in the post) so not only did I hear about how social media was used first-hand from staff (many of whom were themselves directly affected through the loss of homes and belongings), but it also retains a special place in my memory. All the best.

  15. This is what the focus of our children should be. To my earlier post about which people open first (Facebook or email), it’s not about last night’s party but, rather, tomorrow’s source of food. We did this to ourselves when our kids went to those gymnastics meets and EVERYONE got a trophy. Now, 8th graders assume they will get a meal, a job, and all is well with the world.
    We are lucky. That’s all it is.

    This article places a “toy” in a much better perspective. I hopemour kids get it someday, beforemtheynare in charge.

  16. Pingback: Analysis: Social Media and Humanitarian Response « Realidad Alternativa

  17. Modern technology does indeed allow us to do some amazing things—-like saving ourselves a trip half-around the world by using video conferencing…

    Now, as far as social media are concerned, I feel that you are giving them an exaggerated positive influence: Social media has led to an explosion of this-and-that for the broad masses, but among techno-neirds, university staff, and professionals the picture is different. Email has been used since the 1960s, bulletin boards were present no later than the 1970s, online chats and ICQ-relatives were present in the 1980s (quite possibly earlier), the Web (the part of the Internet that is traversed with a browser) was originally created for easier (than with other already existing services like ftp) sharing of documents and information between researchers and professionals, the first wiki followed just a few years later, etc. (Beware, however, that the delay between first use and broad use was considerable until the Internet-boom in the 1990s.)

    “Social media” is a vague term, and it is often hard to point to a specific phenomenon and say “This is social media.” or “This is not social media.”, but it is quite clear that those parts of the Internet that are truly useful in professional communications were present long before the hype around social media started (certainly before I first heard the phrase) and that the services most commonly associated with social media (facebook, myspace, twitter) are inferior alternatives for professional purposes.

    My advice: Forget about social media as a concept—jumping onto a hype does more harm than good (even when the hype is for something beneficial). Instead take an objective and rational look on your needs and opportunities, and make your decisions based on pros-and-cons cost–benefit, whatnot. “We need to communicate X within a geographically dispersed team—how do we do this?” “We need to have a central knowledge-store, editable by all members of group Y—-how do we do this?” “We need to spread our political message to group Z—-how do we do this?” In contrast, do not go by “Hurrah! We have social media! How can we revolutionize our business by using it?!?” or similar.

    • A really useful critique and words of balance Michael, thanks for taking the time to share them. I agree with both your analysis on how long such information-sharing platforms have been around for, and the dangers of jumping on hype, and it’s well worth being measured in what language we use regarding this phenomenon. While different information-sharing networks and the like have been around for a considerable amount of time, I think we’re seeing two things that are changing at the moment. One is the huge growth in the number and diversity of platforms that are creative, innovative, easy to use, and change the experience of information-sharing. The other is the critical mass of people engaging with these specific platforms (just as email exploded in the late nineties- and has now become the defacto business model for most of the globe, in almost all industries).

      On the one hand I fully agree- the only sensible business-model is to look at what our needs are, then decide accordingly (and indeed I wouldn’t advocate for anything less; and with the huge range of interesting platforms out there, and the ability to create further platforms, there is heaps to chose from and investigate). In fact currently (this week) I am invovled with a number of other aid professionals spread around the world doing just that- analysing some of the shortcomings we see in our sector, particularly around the use and availability of information, and creating a platform that meets that need. On the other hand, there is still value in looking at a medium that people are using which has acceptance and critical mass, and saying “hmm… this is where people are and where they are interacting; how can we use the energy that is in this medium and use it to improve what we are already doing”. Again, we return to email- a flawed system and one that only goes part of the way to improving business processes (and has indeed made some business processes truly miserable); there has been great value in taking an accepted medium and building business around it (recognizing the shortcomings), as well as continuing to need to look for alternative ways of operating.

      Again, thanks for your input into this debate- it’s much appreciated.

  18. Social media is changing our world and the way we communicate forever.
    Love it or hate it- it is here to stay.

  19. Pingback: Analysis: Social Media and Humanitarian Response (via WanderLust) « Qualialogica

  20. I enjoyed reading your post and I agree with you people need to think of th posibilities when it comes to humanitarian aid and social media, personaly in the past I have used social media to help contact bood donors (rare type of blod) for an emergency.

  21. Global Nomad, Social media, making a good difference, rapid responses all touch a place in me. I believe you did an excellent job of synthesizing many ideas, technologies and asking good questions.

    In your initial paragraphs you mention Ushahidi but do not come back to it. This BBC News link that will be of interest to the rapid response aid community. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8543671.stm

    You can make your post even more useful if you offer links within your blog, not just at the end.

    A helpful on social media and its power for good and other is: Clay Shirky’s 2008, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin Books.

    It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. I really appreciate your posting this synthesis. Since networking and social media are so new many changes lie ahead. I do have serious concerns about the misuse of these technologies while I applaud and encourage the broadening discussion and problem solving that can happen around the world.

    Thank you.

  22. Pingback: Analysis: Social Media and Humanitarian Response (via WanderLust) « Mbconsulting's Blog

  23. interesting blog…:-D

    one way I think that the news outlets (which constitute part of the social media outlets you’ve been talking about) could better accomplish the task of advertising humanitarian aid is to not reject the value that non-profits have in this endeavor….in the USA a lot of our news sources tend to be biased towards the left…..which has an agenda of vilifying conservatives/religious people every chance they get….their vilification being based much of the time on lies…for example saying that conservatives don’t care about the poor and don’t have any ideas on how to combat poverty……that is false…we got plenty of ideas…just ones that don’t conform with the liberal notion that the poor can only be taken care of by government intervention

    anyhow as a conservative Catholic….this is my take on true charity….that first of all people should give charitable aid because they want to…not because they are forced to through taxation….and second of all this aid should be geared towards helping the needy become self-sufficient (i.e., give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime). Government welfare programs tend to be geared towards neither goal of true charity. Government welfare programs force charity out of people through taxation and seem to be geared more towards having the needy become wards of the government rather than helping them become self-sufficient. That’s my take on charity and humanitarian aid.

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  25. I’ve really enjoyed reading the writing and yes, I agree that there should be limitations as to who to include on your electronic social net-work, this also creates a possibility to limitations of your net-work to be formed with diversities….

    One of my tasks, was to bring so called professionals to so called layperson by allowing the two to interacts unknowingly…one realise, the predetermined predictions, assumptions, prejudice thinking of white-collar and layperson.

    Thinking, feelings, works, art, shared provides to ‘other’ information emotionally to the individuals real-self. In the past, there was many problems with regards to so called professionalisms, the communication was limited and nor clear to understand for many… know the DR. can communicate and understand the level of the client so he/she opens and/or reduces so called professionalism…They seem to have forgotten on the way that professionalism means to be able to move in levels of knowledge system over years.

    Contributions include;
    Information sharing & security
    Real-time accountability (Perfect)

  26. Pingback: 3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work « Wait… What?

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  29. Very nice article. Thanks!

    I am currently working through a re-write of an old course on humanitarian field coordination that I wrote about 10 years ago and have been thinking about improvements in efficiency that have been made in actuallly meeting humanitarian objectives in the field. Obviously, information systems have improved magnificently over the past decade, and today most field workers have or can get access the same information as dedicated technical specialists in their national or international HQs. That alone is a great thing.

    I have been poking around the edges of crowdsourcing, the Ushahidi platform, and the whole phenomenon of social media and disaster response as well. I have to say that your post here is the best I’ve come across so far on these issues. For a “technology immigrant” (i.e. not a “technology native”) like me, the issues were made quite clear and you have managed to both encourage and frighten me concerning the current and future trends in this area.

    I am encouraged to see so much positive energy and personal dedication in the humanitarian field by tech-savvy social communicators, yet frightened that the improvement in some areas is inevitably linked to losses in others. Your comments about the transition from an “edit then publish” reality to a “publish then edit” reality rang true to me. After drinking from the firehose of field level assessment and coordination information myself, I must admit to being somewhat afraid of too much information.

    But, forever the optimist, this feels to me like something truly useful and improving….IF…. rumors can be controlled (or recognized) and if some algorithm for finding the important needles of information among the enormous haystack of posts, blogs, tweets, and texts can be normalised for the community.

    Thanks again, a very good read!


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