Last week I was in Guatemala to attend our global rapid response team meeting (it sounds like a long way to go from Australia for a meeting- in fact, it is- but given that most of the team were just coming out of Haiti, it made sense).
One of the things I was asked to do was present on social media and its application to the field of emergency response- something that I’ve gotten gradually more involved in over the past six months or so, via a very active network of bloggers and tweeters from the aid profession (whose links can be found on the right hand side of this blog under “Aid Blogs”). Not very many people showed up (demonstrating that perceptions of the professional benefits of social media are still undersubscribed), however I wanted to capture the main points of the discussions that were had, as there have been pockets of interest since I brought the topic up.
Additionally, I would value any further ideas people might have as to how aid work and social media can interact professionally.
I hosted the agenda of the session, as well as some briefing notes, on my blog (I figure, we’re talking about social media, let’s use social media). I had also planned to run real-time feedback from the group via Twitter. However because only 4 people showed up to the session, this proved to be unnecessary (in fact, even inconvenient).
The web is no longer a place where entities from without create information and services, place them onto the internet and wait for clients to come to their sites. The concept of social media revolves around a confluence of interconnectivity between users and information, via the medium of various online platforms. In simpler terms, the web is made up of services (applications, websites, interfaces- increasingly hosted by the network itself) to which people (anybody with a computer) can add information (words, data, media, etc.). People then interact both with each other, and this information. People create, edit and own the information, and the web simply becomes a conduit for this to take place. This is, in essence, Web 2.0.
These platforms include (but certainly aren’t limited to) social networking sites like MySpace (MyWhereDidThatGo?) and Facebook; blog services such as WordPress (hooray), Blogger, and microblogging sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Posterous; wikis (community-owned information sources) such as Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Urban Dictionary, Wikimedia and Wikileaks; multimedia sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Photobucket and SmugMug; and all the way through to mashups such as Dopplr and a whole host of other creative amalgams.
I see three main applications for social media in the world of humantarian response and aid work:
1. Near-real-time input into project and operational quality
2. Professional networking
The 1 Million Shirts debate (discussed on this blog and widely elsewhere) saw a huge amount of interested and conversation about good overseas assistance, what to do and how to do it (as well as a hefty chunk of what not to do). Saundra has the definitive catalogue of posts relating to the issue here.
This highlighted the potential of social media and ‘buzz’ to trigger the creation of good-practice consensus, creative ideas, and professional debate relating to a topic or operation, very very rapidly. As you can see in Saundra’s post, there was even a chunk of literature created which discussed the phenomenon itself.
Social media provides a platform for real-time critique- that is, an idea gets put forward, it gets discussed and analysed, its flaws and strengths get highlighted, alternative suggestions are made, and a group consensus around its appropriateness is roughly formed- and all in a matter of hours or days. The potential application for individuals or organizations brave enough to float their planned aid interventions in such a network means that a wide range of people with diverse professional and technical expertise and experience could contribute to improving an idea or operation in a very short amount of time. Indeed the speed with which the Million Shirts debate created critique put most NGOs’ own internal feedback and quality mechanisms to shame.
Social media also provides a platform for rapid innovation. Similar to critique, we saw with Million Shirts how quickly ideas and alternatives were suggested in response to an idea which people initially met with skepticism and hostility. The potential to crowd-source innovation from a pool of aid practioners, academics and enthusiasts has the potential to challenge organizations’ own way of sourcing new ideas or improving current practices. This can happen rapidly, so that even in the space of a rapidly evolving crisis (such as we saw in Haiti) there’s room for discussion and rapid sharing of ideas around how to problem-solve or create alternative methodologies. Additionally, even during ‘peace-time’ when an emergency isn’t necessarily underway, social media provides a broad platform from which to draw ideas and innovation.
Real-time literature creation, linked to both innovation and critique, is a natural byproduct of the engagement with aid-related issues. Currently, this takes the form primarily of blog-posts, although there is increasing movement towards alternative forms of cataloguing information (e.g. wikis), and room for multimedia approaches as well (see Jason’s video contributions to the Million Shirts debate, for an example of how it can become part of the conversation, for better or for worse). Again, Saundra’s post cataloguing the Million Shirts debate is a perfect case-in-point as to how information can be created, catalogued and accessed simply, and in a very organic way.
Finally, and for me most excitingly, social media presents the possibility of real-time accountability. By sharing information or ideas about planned projects or ongoing operations, aid practitioners and organizations open themselves up to the real-time critique and thus real-time accountability of the crowd. This accountability can work in all directions. There is upward accountability, to donors (both institutional donors like governments, and the giving public), who can follow along with your plans and decide whether or not they like their funds going in that direction. There is horizontal accountability, to other aid professionals and organizations, who can agree with or otherwise your approaches and techniques, and suggest alternatives based on their own experience.
Most importantly (but also, currently, most undersubscribed) there is downward accountability- that is, being accountable to the recipients of assistance projects and operations. The penetration of mobile phones into rural communities has transformed the connectivity and social landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s possible to forsee in a relatively accessible future a time when large portions of the populations aid agencies serve will have access to the internet, to Twitter, to blogs, and so forth. By putting ideas out into the public domain, organizations and practitioners will make themselves additionally accountable to their constituents in this way- something that may well force a change in all kinds of business thinking in the aid industry.
In many ways this is self-explanatory, and a natural by-product of social media. The value of networking is in part captured by the previous discussion on quality- the ability to share ideas, experiences, practice and techniques with other aid professionals, and to cross-pollinate between organizations, sectors and even industries. Professional social networking allows both virtual interactions- discussions on Twitter and in the blogosphere- as well as facilitating real-world interactions. Tweet-ups bring people based in a similar area together (I’ve engaged in a couple of these myself already), while applications like the travel mashup Dopplr allow travellers to find geographical intersections with other people within their network and so facilitate real-world interaction.
Some of the key uses of professional social networking include:
Creating new real-world contacts
Building communities (interest groups, communities of practice, virtual centres of excellence)
Crowd-sourcing (using knowledge held in the broader network to solve problems- Ushahidi is an example of a humanitarian platform which taps into the network as a resource)
Information Sharing (Twitter is great for this; the new currency in URLs, with extremely short summaries, are a great way of finding relevant and important information quickly and centrally)
Relationship-Building/Maintainence (especially for geographically dispersed teams- very common in the aid sector)
Community Engagement (again, this is still undersubscribed, but in time, think of the potential to be able to network directly with community members and aid recipients via social media)
The key to successful networking via social media is to be deliberate. This is a very different phenomenon to the sort of thing that happens on Facebook, where your network is primarily made up of people you know in the real world, and you share meaningless frivolity. On James Shelley’s useful blog post on networking and Twitter, he outlines 3 key principles for what networking needs to encompass which I’ve adapted slightly:
1. Have a purpose- identify a need or an area you want input into, don’t just wander into cyberspace and start waffling- or listening to other peoples’ waffle- but rather have a reason behind what you’re wanting out of the experience, and seek accordingly
2. Be focused- think about how you can capture what is important from your networks, and organize your interface accordingly (James highlights the usefulness of Twitter lists for this, but there are other tools)
3. Link to people who matter- don’t just follow somebody because you went to school with them, but identify people who have something to say that you actually want to hear about, and which will improve what you do or how you live your life (James suggests following people who are a part of your real-world community; however in a geographically dispersed profession like aid work, it makes sense to network broader than your own face-to-face networks)
A good approach is to use a cascading or key-informant method, where you identify one or two people in the social media scene who you know, who are well-connected to the things you are interested in, and who are active. Look at who they are talking to, what conversations they are having with whom, and poach accordingly. And think about your audience. Nobody’s going to listen to you if you don’t have something relevant to say.
Communication is an obvious use for social media, and yet at the same time has hidden implications. Haiti was one of the first big disasters where agencies found that social media played a significant role- particularly the amount of interest and chatter in donor countries as they watched the situation unfold. From a marketing and donor-engagement perspective, there was (and continues to be) an information void in social media space around real-time information on developing emergencies. Agencies and operations that can fill this space with reliable information will win interest, followers, support, trust, goodwill and possibly resources, and will contribute to their own brand recognition and network creation.
Social media communication takes place on different levels. Organizations that can break information early and update on evolving situations contribute to headlines. Their tweets get re-tweeted and their resources get linked to. This is about being relevant, and being fast. People want to know about what is happening now. The focus of this portion of communicating is about grabbing peoples’ attention.
Beyond this is the opportunity to provide analysis- in near-real time. Blogs are one of the ideal mechanisms for this (written and video), and by grabbing people’s attention you can then move them over (once you have suffficient resources/information) to these other platforms to share your explanations and thinking, and to draw people deeper into the event and the response to it. It’s important to note that this is a struggle for many NGOs- how to pull donors into that next and deeper level of engagement. This is both about donor education, and about relationship-building. Taking this an extra step (a crucial extra step) is providing the opportunity for people to respond to your information- to comment, question, discuss and disagree. This interactivity is what keeps people engaged and interested, builds relationship, and ultimately contributes to the personalization of experience via the various platforms.
Taking this interaction to one additional level is the idea of crowd-sourcing of information on an evolving context. Recent emergencies have seen this as an increasing trend, particularly in rapid-onset disasters. It was evident in the floods that hit Manila in September 2009 following Typhoon Ketsana, with people using Twitter to mobilize support for response logistics (“volunteers needed”), as well as communicating the location of people trapped on rooftops in the hope that rescue services would be able to respond. Indeed in the early hours after the floods hit, when networks were down in many parts of the city, social networking tools like Facebook were being used to coordinate staff and begin the response.
This was also seen in Haiti, with people tweeting the location of buried victims, or communicating the names of loved ones in the hope that they’d be found and identified via the networks. If harvested correctly, there’s huge potential in crowd-sourcing of real-time information in support of emergency response where time is of the essence, where traditional communication networks may be damaged and where people on the ground have essential information to save lives. The crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi, itself developed over social networks in dialogue with aid practicioners, aims to do just this, and sets up pages for specific responses where people on the ground are able to report incidents in order to share and coordination information as it evolves in real time.
The most important paradigm to bear in mind with new/social media versus traditional media is that we have shifted from “Edit then Publish” to “Publish then Edit” (thanks to @worldbeatboy for commentary on this shift in media paradigm). In the past, media sources owned the information and provided it as a service. They would receive data, check the source for accuracy and credibility, proof-read the content, and only when they were confident in it would they release it for consumption, under copyright, and [ultimately] for some sort of commercial gain.
This is no longer the case. Information is owned by the crowd. When a middle-income computer user in Peru can tweet about an earthquake that happened twenty minutes ago in his or her home town, the currency of Reuters as a source of reliable information has just been devalued (although not entirely, because an organization like Reuters still has a reputation and credibility, while tweeter X may not- and this is where developing a credible social media presence is so essential). This process is known as ‘disintemediarization’- the loss of the intemediary when it comes to information flows.
The reality of an emerging event like a natural disaster means that uncertainty and complexity are supreme, and information in the early hours and even days following an event may be contradictory and unclear. Under the old paradigm, misinformation was heavily penalized through loss of confidence. Today, readers have to credit themselves with the ability to judge and analyse the source of a piece of information and decide whether or not to trust it. Over time, and as more information becomes clear, the network itself chooses what is credible and what is not, and the facts become clearer. Publish, and then edit. The key here is to make sure that you’re saying something- to maintain your presence. Something as accurate and reliable as possible- but if you need to re-adjust a previous statement due to prior uncertainty, this is, under the new paradigm, more acceptable than not saying anything at all.
Of course for large organizations like INGOs, this presents a reversal of traditional risk-management practices where credibility and reputation are the most important portions of a brand. By ‘building a bridge’ directly between field and constituent (donor, recipient or colleague) via the information networks, organizations experience a loss of control of that information. INGOs need to learn how to let go of their ownership of information- or risk becoming irrelevant, or worse, seen as manipulative. They also have to learn how to manage a different sort of risk- the risk of saying the wrong thing in the haste to say something, and the risk, where so much information is accessible to and by the network, that they may face criticism for their action (or lack thereof) by a highly scrutinizing public with ever more access to field-level information, and that criticism could, if mishandled, go viral- without any control.
Engaging with social media is not a luxury, or something that needs to be planned for, or something that needs to be followed closely to see what direction the trends are going to take. This is the current mode of operating, and while the precise form may vary (what will the next Facebook or Twitter look like?), the process of engaging with this new and rapidly adapting space is necessary- or organizations will become irrelevant- or worse, get badly burned by their lack of presence and voice.
The technology is continuing to develop, often at dizzying speeds. The explosion of powerful portable platforms such as the iPhone and its various colourful cousins mean that connectivity is more and more possible, in more sophisticated ways, from more places, quicker. The potential for creativity and innovation is not quite, but nearly, endless.
As an example (and we touched on this in the discussion in Guatemala) I love the connectivity potential around real-time accountability and communication around our field operations in an emergency. Currently, our supply-chain gurus are developing a mobile platform to manage relief-good distributions, based around digital handsets. Goods for distribution are marked-up with barcodes. As community members come to collect their allocated supplies, their names are ticked off the list (pre-loaded into the handsets), and the goods are swiped by the bar-code reader which is stored in the handset (and uploaded to a server).
Taking this a step further, and these same handsets can be pre-loaded with assessment templates for staff carrying out rapid needs assessments. They can have inbuilt cameras (e.g. the iPhone). Staff can send images or text messages a few times a day to a central communications manager who can then take this information and feed it back out in near-real-time to waiting social media networks such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook (or alternative platforms). Every hour, the servers can compile what has been distributed to date or what assessment information is coming in from the handsets. Meaty data is being provided to our constituents (donors, colleagues, recipients and the media) in almost real-time. The technological potential to quickly capture, process and re-distribute data of a meaty variety already exists, and the issue isn’t so much ‘can we do it?’ as ‘what can we do with it?’ I’m sure there are zillions of other creative ideas out there (all of which welcome), and this is just a shallow outline of one such thought that mills in my head from time to time, and which I think we are ever closer to realising.
There are of course critiques, which have also been discussed elsewhere. This new model requires the recipient of information to take the role both of consumer, and of editor/quality control. We need to trust that whoever is reading a piece of information about our work is taking the time to assess the source, and compare that new piece of information with other pieces they already know to be reliable. And, of course, not everybody does this. Which is how rumours go viral.
Additionally, crowd consensus does not equal truth, or righteousness. Crowds are open to misinformation and deliberate manipulation. They are also open to imbalance driven by disproportional voice or presence. A particularly loud or forceful member of a crowd-sourced dataset during an emergency response could easily skew responses in a dangerous direction. Negative crowd consensus on a poorly conceived (or perceived) assistance program can turn into an ugly mob.
There needs to be a balance between allowing information to take on its own life in the network, and still maintaining an organization’s voice and integrity (i.e. what limitations do you place on staff of an organization when they talk about that organization? Is it fair for employees to air their personal grievances in public spaces without expecting any form of retribution?)
Information has value- and can also create risk. How transparent can you be about what you do? If you, in real time, publish figures about what and where you are distributing during a particular relief response, is community Y, 2 miles down the road, going to respond well to that information if they have access to it? How do you protect staff and aid recipients in such a context? How do you ensure protection of vulnerable people? A great example is Nick Kristoff’s catastrophic gaffe in publishing the name of a victim of child rape (and then trying to justify it)- this sort of thing must be avoided, especially as more and more communities gain access to information technology.
The risks are real. So is the potential. Organizations have to find their own balance in the complexity and uncertainty of open information networks. What they can’t afford to do, is do nothing. We need to keep investigating ways to engage with social media, networks and technology to do our jobs better, and to stay relevant.
I would love to hear input from other people- aid insiders, social networkers, media folk, anybody who has an opinion, thoughts, counters and ideas. How can and should the aid industry (including individuals working in that industry not affiliated with organizations) engage with social media?
Thanks for your time.