Supertyphoon Haiyan: How Technology Is Changing Disaster Response

Digital pioneers are helping to radically change how we respond to disasters like Supertyphoon Haiyan

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Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

Residents share a power outlet to charge their mobile phones on Nov. 11, 2013, after Supertyphoon Haiyan hit Tacloban city, in the central Philippines

As Supertyphoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last week, the world has been kept in the loop with almost second-by-second updates of live tweets, images and videos of its impact. It’s another example of how social media are changing how we communicate, but now humanitarians are increasingly using this technology to transform the way we respond to disasters.

The day before the supertyphoon made landfall on Nov. 8, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) put out an urgent request to the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), asking it to activate its volunteer base to sift through social media and other online platforms to help digitally map the impact of Haiyan.

Formed in 2012 by Andrej Verity of the UNOCHA and Patrick Meier, a self-described developer of next-generation humanitarian technologies, the DHN is a consortium of online technology communities that are able to help aid agencies on the ground with disaster response.

In terms of traditional humanitarian-response models, the DHN is a relatively new departure from the norm, primarily because it relies on utilizing the power of new digital media. Humanitarian- and disaster-response agencies have been typically “hesitant to jump on board with new technologies or new approaches until they have been proven,” says Verity. This is mainly because there’s a sense that the stakes are too high if something goes wrong — “this isn’t the time that you want to go out to emergencies with new technologies and have it all break.”

But the obvious advantage social media and online platforms have is the opportunity for both the rapid spread of and access to potentially crucial information. That in itself presents a challenge, acknowledges Verity, because there is such a thing as too much information — during Hurricane Sandy in the U.S. there were 20 million disaster-related tweets in the space of a week. For humanitarian workers on the ground operating in already difficult situations, this overload of information can simply be paralyzing, says Meier.

This is where individuals like Meier — digital humanitarians — and the work of the organization he co-founded, the Standby Task Force (SBTF), come in. The SBTF has been helping the UNOCHA carry out a rapid needs-and-damage assessment by asking digital volunteers — anyone with access to the Internet — to tag reports posted to social media related to Supertyphoon Haiyan.

Meier along with colleagues from the SBTF and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, a nonprofit research group, created a platform called MicroMappers specifically for this purpose. “It’s exactly an app for finding a needle in the haystack,” says Meier. MicroMappers breaks down the large and complicated task of separating out the useful tweets and images into easily completed microtasks. Users can simply access the website and start clicking, tagging tweets as “offers of help,” for example, or images according to the type of damage shown.

“The beauty of it is that you can dedicate as little as three seconds or as much as three hours,” says Meier. On Friday, the SBTF team collected nearly 200,000 tweets that they filtered down to just over 35,000 based on relevancy and uniqueness. In the space of 48 hours, they were then able to tag these 35,000 tweets with the help of digital volunteers and pass that information to the UNOCHA for its crisis map.

Though using this concept of digital microtasking is not new — online citizen science initiatives have used it to get nonscientists to help catalog galaxies, for example — this is the second time MicroMappers has been deployed (the first was in response to the earthquake in Pakistan in September this year). Meier is keen to point out that because of this, “this has not been perfect, we are learning by doing.” One issue has been in improving speed as the site has experienced high volumes of traffic, the other is the more problematic one: the difficulty of geolocating images and tweets.

Despite these setbacks, “it’s already proving its worth,” says Verity. Whereas the U.N.’s rapid assessment usually takes five to seven days, the work of these digital humanitarians has helped to cut that down to two. Meier says he has also been amazed by the response from people around the world: “In every continent except Antarctica, we have people logging on, from someone working for Eurostar tagging tweets during his break to high school students in Qatar.”

The real test now for the future will be to see how humanitarian organizations respond to the shakeup of the industry that digital innovation represents, as the UNOCHA itself has accepted that the rise of digital humanitarians represents a “fundamental shift in power” away from the headquarters of aid agencies. But as with other industries before it, aid agencies may have no choice but to follow the wave of digital innovation — or risk leaving not just themselves, but those in disaster zones behind.