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Digital samaritans: how digital technology is revolutionising disaster response

“Digital humanitarian” volunteers are dedicated to working with the “big data” that now explodes on the internet with every disaster. DVIDSHUB/Flickr, CC BY

In 1998 I wrote Lifesavers and samaritans, then the first report on people’s experiences of using mobile phones in emergency situations. At the time, just 5.1 million Australians had a mobile phone and one in eight users had used them to report a traffic accident: one in 16 a non-road medical emergency; and one in four, a dangerous situation.

Today, emergency workers can scarcely imagine the time before cell phone technology revolutionised their ability to be notified and attend events, drastically reducing the critical emergency “golden hour”.

Seventeen years later, when more than 100 countries now have more mobile phones than they have people, Patrick Meier has written one of the most dog-eared books I have finished in a long time, documenting the way the global revolution in digital communication is being used today to transform disaster response and the ways we handle crises.

Meier and I, along with 11 other writers and creative artists, spent a month together at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center on the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy in April last year, working on books and other projects.

He enthralled us all in a seminar about his work in progress, now published as Digital Humanitarians: How big data is changing the face of humanitarian response, commencing with the story of his own brush with disaster when his wife was in Haiti on Jan 12, 2010 when the massive earthquake struck killing between 230,000 and 316,000 (the estimates are disputed).

Patrick was in his university dorm, and on hearing the news but having no contact from his wife, went immediately to social media – Twitter and Facebook – knowing it would be awash with messages from Haitians both in Haiti and outside the country desperately seeking and conveying sometimes vital information.

Digital technology helped save lives after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Seven hours later he received a text from his wife that she was alive, but his experience with others that night formed the beginnings of a powerful global network of thousands of “digital humanitarian” volunteers who today are dedicated to working with the “big data” that now explodes on the internet with every disaster. They work to harvest, filter, scrutinise and sort millions of messages to assist rescue.

In the days of the Haitian earthquake they assisted the US Marne Corp with crisis maps, acknowledged to have directly saved many lives. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency tweeted that the crisis maps developed by the Ushahidi project formed by Patrick and his network “represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community.”

More than 1,000 digital volunteers had made over 1.4 million edits to the map by the end of the project.

His book contains a cornucopia of mind-boggling data on the extent of digital access today. For example:

  • More people have digital access today than to clean water and working toilets

  • The digital messaging service WhatsApp has now half a billion users who post more than 50 billion messages a day

  • In the cyclone ravaged Philippines, two billion text messages are sent everyday and 92% of internet users have a Facebook account

  • In the 2009 Australian bush fires, 65% of tweets about the bush fires contained information deemed important for emergency response.

Meier’s seminal book explores the challenges of finding precious needles in these vast haystacks, the problems of false and malicious data, privacy and the biases that arise when social media light shines on limited area of disasters and neglects others.

His book also has chapters on the use of digital communication in the Arab Spring, on the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, in astrophysics and on the rise of small civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). Anyone who thinks that these are simply expensive toys bought for indulged children by doting parents should read Meier’s book.

At Bellagio, Patrick would spend a period each day flying his own drone way above the Rockefeller Villa Serbelloni estate, providing us all with 100s of glorious photographs taken from the drone, such as the one below.

Simon Chapman

But drones can be used to great effect in gaining vital information from inaccessible, dangerous and hostile environments where victims and rescuers lives are endangered. One example was the use of digital cameras in helium balloons used by Gulf of Mexico fishermen trying to break through BP’s media information blackout about the 200 million gallon oil spill.

Technological advances motivated by non-health agenda have often had profound unplanned impacts on health outcomes. The rapid rise of domestic refrigeration to preserve food, for example, was associated with rapid declines in gastric and liver cancers not apparently attributable to any other factor.

The global revolution in digital communication is routinely pilloried by those preoccupied by its uses for vapid narcissism like the inexhaustible selfie culture.

Patrick Meier’s book is one of the most exciting and optimistic books I have read in a long time. Its story of mass voluntarism harnessing the stunning array of accessible means that we now have and via which we can instantly communicate unparallelled intelligence about our world, is pure excitement.

Patrick has given many TedX talks on his work. Here’s a good example:

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