Facebook 'mobilises crisis relief'

Social media and innovative technology could hold the key to future humanitarian efforts, say aid officials.

DUBAI // Advances in technology and social media are radically changing the way people responded in the event of humanitarian crises, according to officials at an international aid conference.

Valerie Amos, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordination, said the use of social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had mobilised communities to rally in support of disaster victims, and become involved in relief work at grassroots level.

"We can use technology to inform people what we are doing. We can marry volunteers and local communities, and marry that with technological development," said Ms Amos.

"The first respondents are the local communities. We saw this in Haiti and we have seen this improve in Libya and Japan. That is extremely important. We need more communities involved."

Advances in technology had transformed the way the international response to humanitarian catastrophes was co-ordinated, she said.

"When we get local data and information from people on the ground, it enables us to map what is actually happening in a country."

Ms Amos was speaking on the sidelines of the eighth Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development conference and exhibition. The event was opened yesterday by Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

"Technology presents new ways to transfer cash or food rations to beneficiaries through the use of coupons or vouchers, bank cards and even cell phones," said Princess Haya, a UN messenger of peace and head of Dubai's International Humanitarian City.

Yesterday's agenda included the publication of a landmark UN-commissioned report on the relationship between technology and aid.

The report entitled Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies was compiled by a team of researchers at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, led by John Crowley, and examined disaster relief in Haiti after last year's earthquake.

"For the first time, members of the community affected by the disaster issued pleas for help using social media and widely available mobile technologies," the report said.

"Around the world, thousands of ordinary citizens mobilised to aggregate, translate and plot these pleas on maps, and to organise technical efforts to support the disaster response."

Commenting on the report, Kathy Calvin, the chief executive of the UN Foundation, said: "Humanitarian crises from Libya to Japan remind us that fast and accurate information is imperative in effective emergency response efforts."

She described the technology as an "innovation milestone", and called on humanitarian workers to rethink the way information was "gathered, processed and shared".