The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has just published an important, must-read report on the use of social media for disaster response. As noted by OCHA, this document was inspired by conversations with my team and I at QCRI. We jointly recognize that innovation in humanitarian technology is not enough. What is needed—and often lacking—is innovation in policymaking. Only then can humanitarian technology have widespread impact. This new think piece by OCHA seeks to catalyze enlightened policymaking.
I was pleased to provide feedback on earlier drafts of this new study and look forward to discussing the report’s recommendations with policymakers across the humanitarian space. In the meantime, many thanks to Roxanne Moore and Andrej Verity for making this report a reality. As Andrej notes in his blog post on this new study, the Filipino Government has just announced that “twitter will become another source of information for the Philippines official emergency response mechanism,” which will lead to an even more pressing Big (Crisis) Data challenge. The use of standardized hashtags will thus be essential.
The overflow of information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to disaster response as the absence of information. While information scarcity has long characterized our information landscapes, today’s information-scapes are increasingly marked by an overflow of information—Big Data. To this end, encouraging the proactive standardization of hashtags may be one way to reduce this Big Data challenge. Indeed, standardized hashtags—i.e., more structured information—would enable paid emergency responders (as well as affected communities) to “better leverage crowdsourced information for operational planning and response.” At present, the Government of the Philippines seems to be the few actors that actually endorse the use of specific hashtags during major disasters as evidenced by their official crisis hashtags strategy.
The OCHA report thus proposes three hashtag standards and also encourages social media users to geo-tag their content during disasters. The latter can be done by enabling auto-GPS tagging or by using What3Words. Users should of course be informed of data-privacy considerations when geo-tagging their reports. As for the three hashtag standards:
- Early standardization of hashtags designating a specific disaster
- Standard, non-changing hashtag for reporting non-emergency needs
- Standard, non-changing hashtags for reporting emergency needs
1. As the OCHA think piece rightly notes, “News stations have been remarkably successful in encouraging early standardization of hashtags, especially during political events.” OCHA thus proposes that humanitarian organizations take a “similar approach for emergency response reporting and develop partnerships with Twitter as well as weather and news teams to publicly encourage such standardization. Storm cycles that create hurricanes and cyclones are named prior to the storm. For these events, an official hashtag should be released at the same time as the storm announcement.” For other hazards, “emergency response agencies should monitor the popular hashtag identifying a disaster, while trying to encourage a standard name.”
2. OCHA advocates for the use of #iSee, #iReport or #PublicRep for members of the public to designate tweets that refer to non-emergency needs such as “power lines, road closures, destroyed bridges, large-scale housing damage, population displacement or geographic spread (e.g., fire or flood).” When these hashtags are accompanied with GPS information, “responders can more easily identify and verify the information, therefore supporting more timely response & facilitating recovery.” In addition, responders can more easily create live crisis maps on the fly thanks to this structured, geo-tagged information.
3. As for standard hashtags for emergency reports, OCHA notes emergency calls are starting to give way to emergency SMS’s. Indeed, “Cell phone users will soon be able to send an SMS to a toll-free phone number. For emergency reporting, this new technology could dramatically alter the way the public interacts with nation-based emergency response call centers. It does not take a large imaginary leap to see the potential move from SMS emergency calls to social media emergency calls. Hashtags could be one way to begin reporting emergencies through social media.”
Most if not all countries have national emergency phone numbers already. So OCHA suggests using these existing, well-known numbers as the basis for social media hashtags. More specifically, an emergency hashtag would be composed of the country’s emergency number (such as 911 in the US, 999 in the UK, 133 in Austria, etc) followed by the country’s two-letter code (US, UK, AT respectively). In other words: #911US, #999UK, #133AT. Some countries, like Austria, have different emergency phone numbers for different types of emergencies. So these could also be used accordingly. OCHA recognizes that many “federal agencies fear that such a system would result in people reporting through social media outside of designated monitoring times. This is a valid concern. However, as with the implementation of any new technology in the public service, it will take time and extensive promotion to ensure effective use.”
Of course, “no monitoring system will be perfect in terms of low-cost, real-time analysis and high accuracy.” OCHA knows very well that there are a number of important limitations to the system they propose above. To be sure, “significant steps need to be taken to ensure that information flows from the public to response agencies and back to the public through improved efforts.” This is an important theme in my forthcoming book “Digital Humanitarians.”
Interesting ideas. Are there any maps produced showing the coverage / access to Twitter? I wonder how much overlap there is with the current donor flows as to provide an understanding of where Twitter v.s SMS etc is more appropriate. Although very useful, from my experiences, simple online / de-centralised data entry systems that allow users to identify gaps and the spread / allocation of resources between agencies are still needed – especially among Governments. From there one can then understand appropriate data feeds / feedback loops to fit into the project cycle.
Patrick, I’m very glad that OCHA reached out to you – but puzzled by their forward lean on labeling the publication a Standard, rather than Proposed Guidelines, that are indeed worthy of further analysis and discussion.
Yes, there were appropriate disclaimers in the small print, but believe that a less declarative posture by OCHA on such seminal projects would help them immensely.
Keep up the great work.
Good read like we envisaged, it was going to get here – location specific hashtags (I love this because it also gets the communities affected involved as well, just like we did with #SaveBagega). Which will still lead us to how vulnerable communities themselves use twitter – do they? or maybe another question is – will they prefer SMS to using Twitter? (Brings me to looking forward to how OCHA will be working with country emergency organizations – like in West Africa, especially with their country’s emergency #). If we can get it right with co-ordination (especially with Government emergency agencies), and unrelenting advocacy, then we will get there ASAP. No Doubt, a great direction for humanitarian response!
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Hi Patrick – as always, a very interesting read. Thanks for your blog.
re. standardization of hashtags for crisis, I don’t really believe this will ever happen. Good intentions, but that will not stick. Human communication is a flow and it picks new directions depending on what openings or roadblocks it encounters. Somebody will be ‘creative’ and modify a hashtag to reflect what is happening, or the essence of their message and somebody else will pick that one up. And then maybe another person will add a spin on that.
I would suggest to OCHA that rather than trying to ‘train humans’ we train engines instead. Assume that many people with good intentions will use the designated hashtags, and an equal number of others, also with good intentions, wont. Either accidentally or on purpose. Computers can be trained to figure out which hastags belong together much more easily than we can modify human behavior.
Thanks Jennifer, and thanks for reading. Standardized hashtags are hardly an either/or; what OCHA et al are suggesting is a both/and. OCHA is already using our AIDR platform to train engines/algorithms. “Assume that many people with good intentions will use the designated hashtags, and an equal number of others, also with good intentions, wont.” That is exactly the assumption driving the report. And since you’ve read the report, you already know that OCHA makes clear the limitations that you also point out. Again, nowhere in this report does OCHA suggest that only designated hashtags should be used, that would be insane.
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