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Guest Thinkers

Powering Social Networks for Humanitarian Crises

Here are two cutting-edge solutions for how we can leverage social media in times of crisis. 

Humanitarian crises come in many forms: the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan; the malnourished refugees escaping war torn Sudan in the beginning of this century; the widespread famine in Ethiopia in 1984; and the stream of refugees running from the violence in Libya into Tunisia today.

The response to humanitarian crises is standard: quickly provide emergency response services (food, water, shelter, medical care). Once immediate needs are satisfied, focus on building the capabilities of the affected through economic and political assistance including infrastructure development. The United Nations, Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontier have been the great heroes of large-scale humanitarian efforts.

With the spread of social media, citizens armed with cameras and Twitter accounts could both relay the information on the ground, and also galvanize support from abroad emotionally and financially. New initiatives like micropayments also became popular. For example, after the earthquake in Pakistan, you could text SWAT to a five digit number and your service provider would automatically bill you $5 and send it to the relief efforts in the country.

Yet we are still plagued by two major issues:

(i) Directing people in how they can most effectively help. Citizens send millions of data – images, text, comments, videos – and people from all over the world respond. But their response is often misguided: there have been cases where people have sent clothes when what was needed was water, for instance.

(ii) Sustaining interest. The initial outpouring is impressive and people are genuinely motivated to help the affected, but it is difficult to sustain interest in a crisis more than a year at most after it occurs.

One of us was invited to a thoughtful event organized by Oxfam and Cause Shift to explore the future of humanitarian crises response.

Here were some of our thoughts:

1. Wanted: Top-notch Engineers – NGOs need to develop sophisticated software in the cloud that will intelligently parse information received by citizens and organizations on the ground, and create a mash-up of video, text, image, sensor signals and sound. This information should then be used to create a set of actionable next steps that are tailored to the location of the recipient (assessed via cell phones) and then texted. For example, if I am in New York, I will be asked to organize a fundraiser for Haiti; if I am in Haiti, I will be asked to collect food and take it to a particular neighborhood. This kind of software will massively improve our ability to work with citizens using intelligent social media networks to divert our energies to exactly what is needed on the ground.

But NGOs don’t have the highly skilled engineers that can create the algorithms necessary. This is why humanitarian organizations should ask leading technology companies to donate the time of their engineers instead of donating money. Google, for example, has pledged to give 1% of its profits to charity. We think it would be much more powerful if Google also pledged 1% of the time of its best engineers to helping build systems for NGOs.

2.Wanted: Persuasive Technologies: How long does George Clooney’s pleas to help Sudan or Angelina Jolie’s efforts to work with refugees inspire you to give money to these causes? The fact is that as commendable as the efforts of these celebrities are, we tend to filter out whatever we hear too much. Voices we don’t mind hearing all the time: ours and those of people who are engaged with us on a daily basis.  Stanford professor BJ Fogg pioneered the field of persuasive technology, which studies how technology can change our behavior. Facebook and the game company Zynga are particularly adept at motivating people to add new behaviors: add new friends, comment on people’s statuses, upload pictures, send out requests to join a game and so forth.

Humanitarian organizations will have to use such mechanisms to gently persuade citizens to keep their interest alive in crises all over the world. One way may be to ask large social media companies to include persuasive modules for humanitarian relief in their suite of persuasive technologies as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) plans.

The bottom line is that we’ve seen in Egypt that social media organizes and stimulates people to action. It’s time to power social media with intelligence so that action can be directed effectively and interest can be sustained over the long run.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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