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Mobile and Internet use in crisis-affected communities: Can I phone a friend?

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Affordability, availability, literacy, gender, age, status, cultural preference, political environment and the media/IT/telecoms infrastructure are just some of the dynamics at play in the uptake, choice and use of new technology. Given that these vary so much by context and area, it is hard to draw hard and fast conclusions about the role of new communications technology in humanitarian crises.

Here are some findings, basic data sources, themes and reflections from research carried out in collaboration with UN OCHA for its forthcoming publication on communication and technology in humanitarian assistance.

Key learnings

o Internet and mobile technology transforms the way that data is generated, transferred, collected, connected and shared – and it also amplifies traditional ways of consuming and communicating information, sometimes at a lower cost.

  • People may listen to the radio on a mobile device or stay in touch with friends using a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service, such as Skype, instead of a more expensive/non-existent fixed phone line.

  • People may use new devices to create and share content – for example, taking a picture on a mobile device, sharing it via SMS/MMS/social media.

o Crucially, people are able to connect with each other more quickly and easily than ever before. In humanitarian crises, we know that affected communities turn to people they know for assistance first: be they local, in neighbouring countries or part of a wider diaspora – technology facilitates this.

  • This is changing, has changed and has the potential to change the balance of power, participation and accountability within the humanitarian system.

o Affordability (including that of associated costs such as electricity) can be a barrier to the deployment, adoption and use of technologies – but prices are coming down (ITU) and the fact that people choose to spend such a large share of their income on mobile/Internet services in developing countries (ITU) shows how much information is valued.[1]

  • In some instances, newer technologies can make traditional methods of communication cheaper (e.g. using VoIP services such as Skype rather than fixed telephone lines).

  • As costs of mobile and Internet services fall and coverage increases, all the signs are that usage will increase rapidly in rural areas and among poorer people.

o Mobile and Internet information and communications technology (ICT) can be used as a way of delivering services such as health and education – but in some areas this is severely constrained by a lack of fast broadband connections.