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Use of ICTs in risk communication during crises
Whereas risks are often precursors to crises and risk communication is important in averting or mitigating the effects of crises, different types of risks arise even after a crisis strikes especially in the aftermath a natural disaster. The most difficult period of a disaster is the immediate aftermath, when prompt and swift action is essential. Disasters cause significant numbers of deaths and injuries and displace even larger numbers of survivors. There are physical as well as emotional injuries such as witnessing the loss of loved ones. Essential items such as food and other supplies need to be delivered, temporary shelters need to be put up and medical attention needs to be provided. All these need to be simultaneously addressed and ICTs can play a critical role in connecting the diverse groups needed to manage effective resource collection and distribution during these critical situations.
Role of the Internet
In spite of its relatively low penetration in some societies, the Internet is an ideal tool for risk communication in the post-disaster period for many reasons: the interactivity of the medium, its ability to reach a large group of people within a short period of time, its multimedia character (making it possible to present information in different formats—text, image, audio, video) and its universality.
Perhaps one of the first instances where the Internet was fully utilized for post-disaster response, was the 1999 earthquake that devastated western Turkey. The earthquake caused extensive damage to the telecommunication infrastructure, rendering fixed-line telephones useless. Although some of the mobile phone networks were still working, they were operating with reduced bandwidth. Many of the microwave repeaters mounted on apartment buildings had been damaged. The Internet was the only medium connecting the affected areas to the outside world. The Internet was used primarily for collecting aid and finding information about missing people in order to link them with families and relatives. Many organizations formed 'Message Lines', which acted as a database of people found, their condition, or the degree of damage to the region in which relatives lived (Zincir-Heywood and Heywood 2000). In addition, NGOs used discussion lists to coordinate donations so that donors could identify where help was needed the most as well as the nature of help needed.
Kalemoglu et al. (2005) studied the consequence of the absence of an effective communication and information system in the aftermath of the Turkey earthquake. They found that hospitals were overwhelmed during the critical six hours immediately after the earthquake, due to the exceptionally large number of injured requiring medical care and 'failure of communication with the disaster area'. The communication problem was eventually solved through the deployment of 'wireless and military communication systems'. Kalemoglu et al. (2005) also identified lack of forward planning and preparedness as a contributing factor to the failure of emergency services immediately after the earthquake. They concluded that lessons learned from the earthquake suggest that emergency response teams should be established as part of a larger contingency plan. These teams should then make advance preparations 'that include general precautions, work schedule, hospital care, equipment, transport, registration [of patients admitted to hospitals for treatment], communication and security'.
The ICT deployed need not be sophisticated to make a difference in managing an emergency, according to Ochi et al. (1999) who studied the aftermath of the Cambodian flood of 1997. E-mail, a basic ICT service, helped the WHO Cambodian field office to respond to a medical emergency that occurred after extensive flooding in Cambodia in August 1997. Unusually large numbers of people were being bitten by venomous snakes that had been washed into populated areas by the rising floodwaters. The Cambodian health authorities made an urgent request to the national field office of the WHO for 100 doses of polyvalent type snake antiserum. The WHO had only a few types of monovalent antiserum on stock; in addition, the WHO field office lacked essential taxonomic information about the snakes in Cambodia which the organizations that could provide the required antiserum needed. The coordinator at the WHO field office subsequently sent an e-mail to a member of the Global Health Disaster Network (GHDNet) to seek help in obtaining the required taxonomic information. The GHDNet member in turn forwarded the email to three mailing lists at the network. Members of the mailing lists recommended that the WHO contact several specialists and institutes in the region, including the Japan Snake Institute and the Serum Institute of India. This information-sharing led to the speedy procurement of the required snake antiserum that was then airlifted to Cambodia, saving hundreds of lives.
Alternative communication channels in the aftermath
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the traditional communication system is often overloaded, if not destroyed. This makes coordination of emergency response difficult especially in remote areas. To address the need for communication support in times of disaster especially in the Asia Pacific Region, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), which specializes in emergency telecommunications, has established an Asian base at the ADPC. As soon as a catastrophe or conflict occurs, joint teams from ADPC and TSF are able to arrive anywhere in the world in less than 48 hours and install within minutes an operational telecommunications centre to provide communication support to enable NGOs, UN agencies and the affected population to connect with the outside world.
State-of-the-art satellite mobile telecommunication equipment, the miniaturization of components and the development of satellite networks make possible the rapid assembly of the telecommunication centre whatever the type of terrain. The group uses a network of four geostationary satellites whose 'spot beams' cover 98 per cent of the Earth's land surface. TSF has a number of Mini-M devices (Capsat Phone TT-3060A) which, in addition to digital phone facilities at 4,800 bps, allow fax, data transfer and e-mail at 2,400 bps. The main advantage of these devices is that they are small and light. The emergency telecommunications centres enable live reports, pictures and videos to be transmitted via broadband Internet connections.
Setting up a fixed centre with a permanent satellite Internet connection can prove to be a particularly effective tool for the organization of humanitarian work. Recently, TSF formalized an agreement with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to provide telecommunications support for the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams. The team worked with the UNDAC team in operating the Disaster Operations Centre coordinating both local and international response during the landslide in the province of Leyte in the Philippines in February 2006. The team also operated in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in response to the Asian Tsunami of 2004.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Singapore relied on ICTs as monitoring devices to enforce the quarantine law. For example, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) was used to trace individuals who may have come into contact with SARS victims. Hospital workers, visitors and other patients with the potential of coming into contact with SARS victims were given a card containing an RFID transponder that tracked their movements between different zones in the hospital, making it easy to detect who may have come into contact with a patient later confirmed to have contacted the disease, which had different incubation periods extending to a maximum of 10 days. The government also passed a law permitting the installation of surveillance equipment such as electronic picture (ePIC) cameras in the homes of quarantined individuals (the ePIC cameras were monitored by a private company contracted for the purpose). In addition, video facilities were often the only tools available to families to communicate with family members who were gravely ill with SARS in the hospital.
Use of new media such as blogging
Blogging, although still a novelty in most areas of the Asia Pacific region, helped in many ways in the critical period following recent disasters. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka's largest and most broadly embedded people's organization with a network of 15,000 villages, used blogs successfully in the immediate aftermath of the Asian Tsunami for fund-raising purposes. Two young volunteers started a blog on behalf of Sarvodaya that was later referred to by portals such as Google, Nortel and Apple, which helped to raise USD 1 million in a few weeks from donors around the world. The NGO used this money to provide much needed relief to the victims long before government agencies could react.
Hundreds of blogs emerged in the Asia Pacific region in the first few days following the Tsunami. These were used for information-sharing, locating missing persons, fund-raising and making donations to the needy. Some of these blogs are: http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com (regional), http://tsunamipenang.blogspot.com (focusing on Malaysia and Thailand), http://indonesiahelp.blogspot.com (Indonesia), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4129521.stm (a journalists' blog hosted by the BBC), http://sltsunami.blogspot.com (Sri Lanka), http://consciouscitizens.blogspot.com (post-tsunami rehabilitation), http://phukettsunami.blogspot.com (Thailand), http://tsunamimissing.blogspot.com (regional) and http://tsunamihelpindia.blogspot.com (India). Many of these sites have remained active, helping in subsequent disasters. There were also many discussions about post-disaster help among e-groups, such as Bytes-for-all.
Indonesia effectively used radio to help reduce the trauma of the Tsunami victims. A weekly one-hour programme assisted by UNDP was launched after the Tsunami struck for the 13,000 internally displaced victims in Meulaboh, Aceh. The radio programme covered topics derived from interactions with the community, such as how to control emotions, family relations, worries about employment and income, housing conditions and establishing a community support network. A counsellor and a psychologist provided advice on how to cope with various forms of stress (UNDP 2006).
Wireless LAN technology is another ICT tool that has proven useful in post disaster periods. Ericsson implemented a WLAN solution in Pakistan during the recovery stage of the Kashmiri earthquake at the request of UNOCHA. The Ericsson response team was hosted in the Swedish Rescue Services Agency's camp in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. As the affected population was scattered in remote and inaccessible locations, the major concern was to ensure that help reached those in need. Relief personnel were connected to an intranet through which information transfer, both within and across the relief organizations' own networks, could take place. The camp was connected via a VSAT connection to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in New York, where a connection to the Internet was provided. The benefit of this system is that all relief workers have access to a common network and can share the same local information (Ericsson 2006).