CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Social media platforms have emerged as a powerful tool -- and a potential risk -- in humanitarian aid efforts.
The benefits and problems experienced by nonprofit aid workers converge with issues that commercial companies may experience as well.
Relief workers used smartphones and social media platforms to send swift aid to victims under rubble during the 2010 Haiti earthquake and to those trapped in high-rise apartments several floors up after Hurricane Sandy.
"Humanitarian efficiency is being better able to provide assistance that is meaningful and actually effective on the ground," said Patrick Vinck, associate faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and panelist speaker at the global launch of the 2013 "World Disasters Report."
The nearly 300-page document details how technologies such as digital payments, mobile phones and social platforms have reduced the cost of relief efforts and improved service delivery to victims in need. The report also outlined key dangers associated with using new technologies, including data privacy breaches and global inequality in access to broadband services.
Social media platforms at the center of crisis
The use of social media data during the Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Sandy indicated that those in the middle of disaster are often the most reliable information providers, as well as first responders.
"When we talk about empowering communities, this means not just sending but also receiving information from them," Vinck noted.
Patrick VinckAssociate faculty, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
During the earthquake in Haiti, the Red Cross received text messages from members of the Haitian diaspora about family members, said Laura Howe, the Red Cross' vice president of public relations.
"They were sending SMS texts: where people needed food, where people needed help -- in some cases, actual addresses of where people were trapped under rubble," Howe said.
The Haitian disaster began a process to develop a social media listening console, known as the Digital Operations Center, to roll up data from blogs, social platforms and geolocation sources to better understand disasters from victims' point of view and to improve aid delivery, she said.
"That was the start of a process to use social to engage the public," Howe said, "but also those affected by disasters and emergencies and give them a seat at the table about how services are delivered."
Some stunning statistics have emerged as well: 76% of Americans expect help to arrive within three hours after posting a need or cry for help on a social platform, according to research by the Red Cross collected over the past three years.
"That is a pretty big public expectation that disaster responders are going to have to cope with going forward," she said.
While social media helped aid workers meet those expectations, panelists noted that access to information from smartphones raised the specter of data misuse.
"Just because the data is available doesn't mean it can be used in an ethical fashion," Vinck said. "There isn't systematic thinking around how cell phone providers can … [make] … data available, but in a way that has no risk for the people involved."
Because access to the Internet has played such a major role in serving people in need in real time, several panelists also noted lack of access to broadband services as a serious issue.
An estimated 60% of the world's population isn't connected to the Internet -- an issue that panelists refer to as the digital divide.
"Are we privileging communities with connectivity over those who don't have access to technology?" said Matthias Schmale, undersecretary general of National Society and Knowledge Development at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Takeaways for corporate IT
There are lessons learned for commercial companies using social media and other new forms of data to affect decision making:
1. Trust but verify. The American Red Cross analyzed messages at the center of the crisis to help divert resources where they were most needed. But it didn't simply take the word of one person using Twitter. Instead, it looked for patterns of need that were consistent and credible.
2. Develop standards for proper use of private data. Humanitarian organizations are beginning to establish or coalesce around standards for use of private data. Establishing and cultivating ethical use of data is critical to prevent data intended to help victims from falling into the wrong hands or being seized arbitrarily by governments or other institutions simply because it's available.
3. Address the digital divide. Just as relief organizations recognize that global inequities undermine effective aid, private companies can also be affected by inequities. Investment in the future is about ensuring that underserved populations have meaningful access to technology.
Matthias SchmaleUndersecretary general, National Society and Knowledge Development, IFRC
4. Human collaboration makes data meaningful. All panelists affirmed the importance of human analysis, context and action in the context of technology use. As Schmale noted, "Technology is a means, not an end in itself."
The real benefits of social data analytics come from joining technology with human judgment and action, according to the Red Cross' Howe.
"You can't view technology in a silo," she said. "Have that human collaboration behind the technology, because that's really what drives the ability to use the data you're getting from technology to affect your services on the ground."