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Philippines: Typhoon Haiyan and the digital last mile

25 Nov 2014


1 Dec, Eastern Samar, the Philippines: Children at a UNICEF child friendly space in the town of Guiuan. Credit: OCHA/Jose Reyna
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Aid organizations are increasingly recognizing and prioritizing communication as a form of assistance – one as important as water, food and shelter

Aid organizations are increasingly recognizing and prioritizing communication as a form of assistance – one as important as water, food and shelter. Without access to information, disaster survivors cannot access the help they need or make informed decisions about their recovery.  These are just some of the main findings of a new report published today about the response of the UN and its partners to November 2013’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on 8 November 2013, an estimated 14 million people were affected and over 6,300 people were killed. Within hours of making landfall, Haiyan destroyed almost all existing media and communication infrastructure, leaving little or no access to radio, television, newspapers or Internet for those who survived. It became almost impossible for affected communities to either receive or provide critical and lifesaving information about things like available aid, missing relatives, health issues, evacuation and recovery planning.

"When we went to the evacuation centres we were so shocked - we thought they would need food and water. But their priority was that they needed to be informed on what was going on outside the evacuation centre, what the Government and humanitarian agencies were doing for them so they would know where to go" said Olive Tiu, Regional Director of the Philippine Information Agency based in Tacloban.

Communicating with disaster affected communities

Nine months after the typhoon made landfall, humanitarian agencies from the global Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network came together with affected communities, local responders and the Government in an effort to learn from the Haiyan experience.

Subsequent learning events were held in August in Tacloban – the city worst affected by Haiyan – and Manila to highlight good practice, to examine where and why challenges arose, and working together to develop goals and strategies for the next disaster response.

The final review – published today - aims to help inform how a successful communications response in a similar context should be designed and implemented, and map what is needed from different participants to achieve this.

Communication is aid

Without access to reliable information, rumours quickly started to spread among some of the affected communities. Stories of a truck carrying aid supplies breaking down, quickly transformed into a convoy of trucks crashing. Some people, including some of those worst affected by the storm, fled their village after hearing of a rumoured tsunami two days after Haiyan. Rumours of the UN withdrawing support and of children being trafficked also generated fear among local communities.

Disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, show that humanitarian actors are increasingly using communication tools - radio, mobile phones, social media - to access, communicate and disseminate information that may save lives or improve living conditions.

After Typhoon Haiyan struck, OCHA issued an urgent request to the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to activate its global online network of volunteers to supplement existing data on immediate infrastructure damages and the displacement of people.

Typhoon survivors and Filipino diaspora worldwide also used Google’s free crisis tool, Google Person Finder, to post and search for information about their loved ones. Moreover, the Philippine Red Cross and other agencies used social media for updates and information-sharing to raise awareness and garner financial assistance with the support of thousands of global citizens online. Some of those trapped in the worst-hit areas turned into ‘citizen journalists’, taking photos and videos, conducting interviews, posting photos to document the destruction and calling for much-needed aid.

“The importance of communication technology in disaster response is growing at an unprecedented rate. However, as it becomes more complex, the global humanitarian community needs to learn and adapt,” said David Carden, Head of OCHA in the Philippines.

The ‘digital last mile’

Communication technologies are no longer just about communication. A phone can act as a camera, a TV, a radio, a bank, and a personal ID. However, this does not always hold true for the most vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster at the scale of Typhoon Haiyan.

The 'last mile' is a term used by humanitarian workers to describe the critical last stage when humanitarian aid reaches the people most affected by disasters – the distance between a warehouse and an isolated community, for example. Twitter and Facebook for example, have provided a means for communities to self-organize themselves and connect with each through digital technology.

Those affected in disasters have always been the first responders, in terms of reaching out to their friends, neighbors, communities overseas, churches, mosques, and local leadership for support. However, while technology has the power to connect, it also has the power to introduce barriers between humanitarian actors and affected people, especially when replacing face-to-face interactions.

“My problem was so complex - I wanted to discuss it face to face with staff and I didn’t know if it would be heard if I texted it,” said one community member from Tacloban. “A text can be deleted, whereas paper in a feedback box is more official”, she continued.

“SMS, email, posting Facebook or Twitter messages can all be useful. But they are not the same, and do not achieve the same ends as face to face communication. This is the only way to build trust and relationships” said Stewart Davies, Communications with Communities Officer from OCHA’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

The CDAC Network Learning Review has drawn recommendations from affected communities, governments and humanitarian responders to manage the balance of providing and receiving information in a response – placing technology as an important tool in the communications ‘tool box’, yet emphasizing the importance of other modes of community engagement, including, but not limited to, face-to-face conversations.

“Flexibility is key in this area to ensure we are engaging in ways that are appropriate to the context and communities,” emphasized Caroline Austin, CDAC Network Learning Review Project Lead.