In the devastating aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti on 12 January, media outlets have been buzzing about the use of social media in the relief efforts. Social media has revolutionized how people communicate with each other around the globe and has two main applications in disaster relief:
- Spreading awareness and raising money
- Facilitating innovative solutions to disaster-related problems.
However, few people are looking at whether these uses of social media have actually been effective.
On the fundraising front, in a text-message appeal campaign, the American Red Cross raised over 20 million dollars. Hundreds of thousands of people joined Facebook groups to show solidarity with the victims of the earthquake and to help raise money for the relief efforts. Clearly, social media has successfully sped up the pace of relief efforts in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.
Several organizations have quickly come up with unique solutions using social media to aid relief organizations. In the wake of the earthquake, several online missing persons databases were quickly created. However, Google’s application, called Person Finder, aggregated these databases and is currently tracking some 32,000 records.
Ushahidi, an organization that was created to map post-election violence in Kenya, developed an open-source, customizable platform to geographically represent and aggregated data sent in from Haiti by email, Facebook, Twitter, and text message. Ushahidi is also developing an application called SwiftRiver that aims to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the crowdsourced data. Ironically, SwiftRiver’s solution, is to crowdsource the editing, creating teams of “citizen editors,” similar to how Wikipedia polices its online content.
Google’s and Usahidi’s approaches are certainly innovative, but how effective have then been? Few organizations or media outlets have tried to answer this question, and examples of these tools’ and social media’s successes are fairly scattered. Buried in an AP article, a former Google employee who now works for the U.S. State Department stated, “At least 20 people so far have been able to use this program [Google’s Person Finder] to tell their families in the U.S. that they’re OK.” In addition, the Red Cross confirmed that a man trapped in rubble was rescued after his location was posted on Facebook by a neighbor.
Web 2.0’s unique capabilities also pose new challenges that need to be overcome, largely how to resolve the signal-to-noise dilemma. Organizations are struggling to aggregate the large amounts of data coming in, much of which appears to be either incomplete or false. Rumors can fly in the immediate aftermath of a conflict, impairing the ability of relief organizations to assess the situation, and it is unclear whether social media corrects or actually exacerbates this trend. Crowdsourcing could be a partial solution, but as the volume of data increases, the process will only become more labor-intensive.
Though the media has avoided looking critically at the use of social media in disaster relief, it is fair to say that the adoption and integration of these new Web 2.0 capabilities is incomplete. Nevertheless, organizations and the media must move beyond praising all the innovative possibilities offered by social media in disaster response and begin a comprehensive assessment of social media’s use in wake of the Haiti earthquake. Integrating these lessons learned will help the international community better respond to future disasters.