Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Adapt to Survive-- A response to

The following is a collection of my reactions to irevolution's post, "How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive" from the initial fleeting, to the crude visceral, and finally the rooted and reflective.  My conclusion is that survive refers to how aid agencies feel they can remain relevant in the ICT hierarchy and retain their role as information command centrals. The term has only a passing association to the health and well-being of disaster victims.

When I saw @PatrickMeier's post announced on Twitter, I imagined the world had unlocked a secret for how people could eat cell phones and drink bars of connectivity.  Technology to the rescue. Descriptions of the heroics of ngo innovation in crisis has often made such sugar plum fairies dance in my head.  It just sounds ridiculous. 

But Meier is sincere in his concentration on a narrow, immediate concept of survival.  Both for the victims of the crisis and for the humanitarian organizations who have been scrambling to marshal the data deluge. However, he begins to sound as though he is arguing that humanitarian aid organizations are in competition with victims on the ground for information. While free market competition might drive innovation, the possibility of remaining relevant (in the information loop) is presented as a reason for ngo's to design applications which perpetuate their role as information gatekeepers.
The BBC Trust issued a new report titled, "Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive — And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help," which was a follow-up to a 2008 study called,  "Left in the Dark: The Unmet Need for Information in Humanitarian Emergencies."  Meier summarized the findings and offered some of his own expert insights.  The underlying perception in the aid world seems to be that there has been a tremendous leap in four years from not enough ICT in the field to saturation.  The tone is both self-congratulatory for meeting this staggering need so quickly, and at the same time measured, reminding readers of the integral, irreplaceable role aid agencies place in the crisis ecosystem. Notice the punctuation of  'dash' And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help.  It's as though the ngo's are hanging on to the people who have just figured out how to survive on their own.  
Reading reports from humanitarian aid agencies can have a deja vu-ing effect.  Each organization regurgitates quotations, anecdotes, and "data."  It becomes the snake swallowing its tail as an information circle impossible to determine where original data was gathered or where policy began.

So how does the ngo remain relevant when ICTs are giving power to the people?  Contrary to earlier statements I've read by Meier, in this piece he is in favor of developing a nuanced feedback loop based on 2-way communication.  He writes that individuals on the ground, primed by the real-time speed of social media as well as its 2-way interaction, are increasingly unsatisfied or distrustful of traditional crisis communication.  Radio announcements even SMS blasts neglect another vital function of communication during a crisis-- feeling less alone, feeling heard, feeling like your experience is shared.  Drawing from the BBC Trust report, Meier quotes,

“while responders tend to see communication as a process either of delivering information (‘messaging’) or extracting it, disaster survivors seem to see the ability to communicate and the process of communication itself as every bit as important as the information delivered.”
The intangible quality of communication is something I write and speak about frequently, sharing my experience as a mediator and as a translator in one of these humanitarian hubs (captured here 4636 Haiti).

Here, Meier and I come together (although unintentionally).  He writes about aid agencies needing to change their way of providing service to their customers (disaster victims) if they want to stay in the relief game.
"I wonder whether these aid agencies realize that many private sector companies have feedback systems that engage millions of customers everyday. "
It is no secret that the aid world is a big business.  And the more groups/cultures/languages that are online or on mobile devices means any organization, for-profit or non, should be adapting ICTs to suit these users communication and information management preferences. 

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