The changing role of ICT in emergency and disaster response


Boxing day 2004: in the haze of post-Christmas indulgence, the news of a tsunami started to trickle through the seasonal cheer.

We know now that the size and the impact of the tsunami was unparalleled; twelve countries were hit, hundreds of thousands died and millions were left homeless.

In 2004, it took hours before the world learnt of the scope of the tragedy and longer still for international relief agencies to be able to respond.

No social media, no phone camera, no apps. The lack of resources available at the time proved fatal. However it wasn’t only the delay of information -- there were no systems, no technology, nothing in place to prevent all those deaths. It wasn’t just the reporting, there was a glaring lack of tsunami warning systems in the region.

While the enormity of this tragedy still evokes sadness and horror, the aftermath of this tragedy forced global communities to really examine its practices and technology so that the response could be more agile, and more importantly, ensuring the catastrophe itself could be mitigated in the first place.


In the eleven years since the tsunami, the capacity for responding to disasters has completely changed, not only in the reporting of it, but the way we can anticipate it.

A key part of this response is the speed at which technology is moving, not just the devices themselves, but also the way we use the social media platforms available to us.

It is a rare person who doesn’t check their phone for the ins and outs of daily life. Facebook and Twitter have become the places to go to if we want to check the news headlines, the weather; even what the traffic is doing (or not doing) in our area.

It makes sense then, that when crisis occurs, that the first place we now seek isn’t the television or radio, it’s social media. The speed, the agility and the user-friendly nature of these platforms make them ideal for up-to-the-minute announcements.

However, it is these very elements that can also cause the most challenges to organisations looking to use them for emergency response.

Social Media: managing the conversation

It is crucial in emergency situations that a relief group or government body can steer the online conversation in a way that will provide clarity assurance and facts.

One of the biggest problems with social media is that it can be the conduit for a gigantic game of Chinese whispers and for an agency trying to relay information, this can be massively counter-intuitive and even dangerous.

Another problem that routinely crops up is the question of who is even the agency in charge of putting out the rumours? Is it the jurisdiction of the relief workers, the police or the government? Such a lack of cohesion can mean that no one takes responsibility, or that everyone does which can create confusion and disharmony.

One of the simplest ways to pre-empt these issues could be with comprehensive emergency plan from public bodies, which incorporate the following:

  • All agencies have a clear understanding of their roles that they will play in broadcasting information
  • The networks of communication between groups are compatible
  • Using a device that will link the public to information and cohesively share information, such as a ready hashtag
  • Ensure that there are staff members ready to be online scouring feeds for misinformation on social media and common sites like Wikipedia
  • The use of platforms like SimulationDeck, a platform where agencies can test how good their response would be in a hypothetical disaster

Of course it is impossible to anticipate every single scenario, but these few things could be key in creating a more meaningful forum for emergency response.

The good news

However, the challenges should not detract from the enormous amount of good that this technology creates for people affected by disaster.

A significant example is 2011 Haiti earthquake, described as a watershed moment in the way social media can be used in emergencies.

Not only could people on the ground communicate the immediate danger, but it was unique in the way that international communities could galvanise support and organise relief.

It also had significant long-term effects in that because for the first time, the Haitians could show the world their own story in their own voice. This one event highlighted the ongoing poverty and violence that the region was faced in a way that a more traditional source couldn’t.

Better news

Another fantastic development is the way technology itself can be used to prevent and to mitigate damage in disasters.

For example there is brilliant innovation emerging called IntelliStreets. IntelliStreets has been described as a street-lamp on steroids. The idea came out the fear and chaos of 9/11.  Essentially, these lamp-posts are the Inspector Gadget of urban lights. In addition to having an in-built flood response, they:

  • Act as a two-way emergency sensor, allowing those in trouble to press on a blue button and ask help
  • Project a map to helping people navigate their way to safety
  • Act as a hazard warning siren

This technology will be able to be run remotely, on iPad, so that town officials can respond to any given emergency quickly. They have already been installed in several U.S. cities and while they have yet to be activated in their ‘emergency capacity’ their potential to help citizens evacuate and get to safety is enormous and varied.

The idea that pervades all these examples is empowerment. These technologies give people a way to react to crisis that traditional means haven’t:

“Where as once it was thought that victims of crisis were merely that – victims, it is now understood that victims can simultaneously be responders, bringing aid to themselves, as well as journalist, providing real-time reports for the benefit of the whole affected community.”

While it is a challenge to stay on top of the rapid and agile advancement of technology, it is imperative that agencies continue to do so, not only so they can help their communities in the very worst of times, but so they can best equip their citizens to save themselves.