There have always been natural disasters and human crises that we’ve had to deal with, but it wasn’t until the dramatic advances in communication technologies that we’ve had the ability to respond to these disasters efficiently and quickly. The spread, mobility, and range of all these new technologies, such as mobile phones, twitter, and facebook, allow us to recover and provide aid in a timely manner. All this many-to-many communication doesn’t come without its fair share of problems though. Information credibility, accuracy, and flow (two-way communication) can create issues when trying to filter out proper information from false information.
The “Twitter in Tehran” situation, where a photograph about a women killed in the Tehran demonstrations was spread using social media, is an excellent example of what we have to be careful of with all these new technologies. Our ability to access information faster has also taken a toll on the reliability of the facts. In general, critical emergencies have started gaining more prevalence, and that in turn is making our communication technologies the lifelines for dealing all these human and civil conflicts. Mobile phones have had the greatest reach and penetration over the last decade, with internet and social networks springing up in more recent years. This creates a disparity between the communication types (one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many) which have different effects on the audiences and information.
Improvements in our early warning systems to detect these disasters has been ongoing since the 1940’s, but the impact of the December 2004 tsunami was the stepping stone that lead to better progress in our warning systems. In the region the tsunami hit, there was no warning system and no disaster prevention, which pointed out that we all needed a better warning system no matter where you were, and the need for an international framework of regulations regarding disaster prevention and warning. Since then, great efforts have gone into increasing warning standardization, greater connection between public and emergency networks, and allowing priority access to emergency services during a crisis. The newest emerging issues are controlling the flow of information, causing slower reactions but reliable facts, versus real-time information, creating faster information but worse fact filtering. It can never be a perfect system, but with all the improvements I think there could be some common ground for coordinating both methods efficiently.
Although this has profoundly affected our early warning systems, we need to focus more now on long-term benefits to our early warnings, such as general community preparedness using communication methods and different technologies. With the spread of mobile and online networks, we have increased the amount of lifelines we can access during times of crisis. It’s all about creating options and alternatives instead of relying on one single method of information and networking. The UN has started devising GIVAS (Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System) to provide real-time information and analysis of global crises so that they can target people that are most vulnerable and in need of assistance. This has also lead to crowdsourcing technology, which maps the location from which information is posted to gain a better understanding of the crisis and its most greatly affected zones. Technology and communication really has become our crises lifelines, and we have to do everything we can to create options for ourselves during a major event.