“In a disaster, we can’t do anything without information.”

When the Philippines was struck by Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall, on 8 November 2013, a network of digital volunteers was already on high alert, prepared to seek, sort and generate data about the disaster—all from their desks.

The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) is a group of volunteers on standby to support disaster responders with data analysis, real-time media and social media monitoring, the rapid creation of crisis maps and other technical services. OCHA co-founded the group in 2012.

The volunteers’ efforts helped generate maps showing the locations of injured people, infrastructure damage and interrupted water supplies in Tacloban and other areas devastated by the storm. “Skilled mapping teams as well as the general public united to work through many tasks and data to provide a rapid response,” said Cat Graham, a DHN coordinator.

This was not DHN’s first Philippines disaster response. The network was activated when another storm, Typhoon Bopha, left a path of destruction across the country’s south less than one year earlier.

Historically, such events made information gathering an onerous task, but during Typhoon Bopha, something different happened: People shared their experiences through social media. Imogen Wall was working in OCHA’s Manila office in December 2012 when the storm hit. She says she felt overwhelmed by the amount of information coming in.

“I was watching hundreds and hundreds of tweets come in that included pictures and video, and I realized 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.”

DHN searched for tweets about the storm, identifying pictures and videos of damage and flooding. They then located, verified and categorized the content.

“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. Within 36 hours, DHN had produced a digital map based on the data it had gathered from social media, with links to images and videos.

That experience in Typhoon Bopha led to the development of “micro-mapping”, a tool that enables volunteers to categorize, verify and geo-tag information with the click of a mouse.

When Super Typhoon Haiyan began its approach, humanitarian officials knew the digital volunteers’ work would prove invaluable. OCHA activated DHN the day before the storm struck, and micro-mapping was quickly put to use.

“Over 1,000 volunteers from our network were active in this event,” Ms. Graham noted. Within just a few days, over 182,000 tweets had been collected and filtered.

DHN was activated twice for Super Typhoon Haiyan, and information collected by volunteers was incorporated into documents for use by responders on the ground.

“This activation is a testament to what can be achieved in a unified digital response,” Ms. Graham said.

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Ericsson Response is supporting the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) by providing free Internet services to the humanitarian community from the city hall of hard-hit Tacloban. © WFP/Marco Frattini

On 12 November, a woman cradling a baby stands amid debris and other destruction caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, in Tacloban City – the area worst affected by the disaster – on the central island of Leyte. © OCHA