ECOSOC: Innovating humanitarian response

16 Jul 2013

December 2012, Mindanao, Philippines: A global network of digital volunteers used social media to map the impact of Typhoon Bopha, helping the UN and authorities respond to the deadliest storm of the year. Credit: OCHA
In December 2012, a global network of digital volunteers mapped the impact of Typhoon Bopha by analyzing social media, helping the UN and authorities respond to the deadliest storm of the year.

On 17 July, the second high-level panel of the 2013 ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment will explore how humanitarian organizations can seize the opportunities presented by new technologies to innovate and improve their response to disasters.

On 5 December 2012, Typhoon Bopha struck the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. More than 1,900 people were killed or are still missing. The storm – 2012’s deadliest – affected an estimated 6 million people and devastated infrastructure across eastern and central parts of the island. Bridges, roads and buildings were destroyed, and access to affected communities – a tough proposition at the best of times – was incredibly difficult.

It was clear that information from affected areas would be hard to come by. But it was available. People across the affected area were sharing their experiences with each other through social media.

A network of digital humanitarians

Imogen Wall was working in OCHA’s Manila office as the storm approached. She remembers watching people in affected areas tweet about their experiences, and she remembers feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that was coming in.

“I was watching hundreds and hundreds of tweets come in that included pictures and video, and I realised how crucial this information could be,” she recalls. “But there was no way that we could capture and analyse it. So we reached out to the Digital Humanitarian Network.”

The Digital Humanitarian Network is a group of professional volunteers who are on standby to support humanitarian organisations respond to disasters.

The team searched for tweets about the storm and identified pictures and videos that showed damage and flooding. Their task was made easier by the fact that the Philippines Government had taken the unusual step of designating a hashtag for the storm. They then set about locating, verifying and categorizing the content, culling any re-tweets or updates that failed to add anything new.

“Within 10 hours of activation, over 20,000 tweets were analysed and reduced to about 122 unique entries,” explained Liz Marasco, who works in the OCHA Information Management Unit in the Philippines.

“In a disaster, we can’t do anything without information, so finding ways to garner the necessary data in order to tailor how we respond is critical.”
Within 36 hours the Digital Humanitarian Network had produced a digital map based on the data they had gleaned from social media with links to images and videos of flooding and damage.

The way ahead

Patrick Meier led the Digital Humanitarian Network team involved in the Mindanao response. He is proud of what the team achieved, but is also aware of how the response could be improved.

“We were given 12 hours to produce the map,” he says. “But we spent half of that time customizing the platform and getting it set up.”

Another concern, says Meier, was the fact that to take part in the digital response, volunteers needed to be familiar with a specific platform. This meant that some qualified people could not be involved.

He is now working on turning the experience of Typhoon Bopha into a tool that can be used by humanitarian organizations to aid future disaster response. The tool is based on an approach known as micro-mapping, whereby volunteers will be able to categorize, verify and geo-tag information with a simple click of a mouse, rather than by using a cumbersome and complicated programme or platform.

“The idea is to democratise digital volunteerism,” he says.

“We tried something experimental during typhoon Bopha,” he continues. “Now we’re trying to take what we learned and make sure that next time we can do it properly rather than being reactive.”

Watch the High-Level Panel 'Promoting humanitarian innovation for improved response' live on UN Webcast (10:00 AM, CET, Wednesday 17 July).