Technology revolutionizing disaster response – UN report

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 25 Apr 2013

(New York, 25th April 2013) Communications technology is fundamentally changing the ways in which survivors of emergencies cope with crises, and humanitarians need to adapt, according to a report launched today by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The report, Humanitarianism in the Network Age, foresees a future of better-informed, more connected and self-reliant communities that are able to use communications technology to share information with each other and organize their own responses. This in turn is creating new groups of responders such as volunteer tech networks, and making the role of telecommunications companies in humanitarian work even more important.

“In some countries this is already a reality,” says Ms Gwi-Yeop Son, Director of Corporate Programmes. “In the Philippines, the authorities are using Google crisis maps and affected communities are organizing online. In Kenya, the Open Data project is making government information on key services available to everyone with an internet connection. Communications technology is a way of helping people to engage with their choices and make decisions affecting their lives.”

The report finds that humanitarian responders must recognize that information and communication are basic humanitarian needs. During the response to Hurricane Sandy, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that storm survivors regarded communication as a top priority.

“This report confirms our findings: deploying temporary disaster networks is one of the most important practices we have used in humanitarian response,” said FEMA Head of Innovation Desiree Matel Anderson. “Communications technology has the power to revolutionize international, regional and local emergency response, just as it is changing other aspects of our lives.”

The report also looks at the challenges of gathering and managing the vast quantities of data generated by improved communications. It explores the potential of crowd sourcing for crisis response and suggests some ways in which humanitarian agencies should adapt.

“To be fit for purpose within a rapidly evolving landscape, and to be more effective in our response, we must innovate – not just in the tools we use, but in the ways we work,” said Gwi-Yeop Son. “If we don’t, we risk losing touch with the very people we aim to serve.”

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