Monday, August 23, 2010

Social Media and the Pakistan Flood

The Disaster

As you know by now, Pakistan is dealing with the affects of devastating flooding. The United Nations estimates that 2 thousand people have been killed, six million have been left homeless, and over 22 million are now directly affected by flooding. According to a New York Times article, there are legitimate concerns about the “economy, food supply and political stability” in the country.

Jane Cocking, the humanitarian director at Oxfam, has said that the disaster is multi-faceted: "...what we have is a single, long event that has the scale of the [Asian] tsunami, the devastation of Haiti, and the complexity of the Middle East. (Source: BBC article)

The Response

Though many were critical of the international response to this disaster, especially early on, aid levels have been increasing, and governments are beginning to do more to help. Yesterday, the Canadian government agreed to match Canadian private donations to registered charities. Because of the scale and ongoing nature of the disaster, increased aid is certainly required.

Social Media’s Role

As has become custom in major humanitarian disasters, social media has played a vital role in coordinating relief, spreading awareness, and raising funds for those in need. It’s widely known that users of Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other social media sites have contributed greatly to the relief efforts in the Asian Pacific, Haiti and elsewhere, but the approach to leveraging social media for humanitarian needs, the players involved, and the tools available have all changed.

In past disasters, the use of social media as a tool to grow awareness and help people on the ground has come about organically. That is to say, people have used channels they normally use, Facebook for instance, to communicate extraordinary messages. Now that the impact social media can have on relief efforts is well documented, groups have begun to try to better organize their approach. With a press release on Friday, Aug 20, two groups, Pakistani Peace Builders (PPB) and ML Resources Social Vision (ML Social Vision), launched Relief4Pakistan, a global and grassroots campaign designed to raise awareness and funds for flood victims in Pakistan. The campaign will be relying heavily on social media tools, and the involvement of Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir (Iron Man, Star Trek). This sort of organized approach to engaging the public on social media platforms in the wake of a disaster will be the norm going forward, and I predict it will have meaningful results.

In addition to the changing approach to using social media to help those in need, the scope of players involved in social media has grown considerably. The United States Air Force issued a press release earlier this month outlining the value of the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page, and the State Department’s Youtube channel and Flikr page for flood victims and aid workers.

On the technological end, there are new tools being used to help first responders and aid organizations on the ground in Pakistan. Google’s Resource Finder is a “web-based tool that allows anyone to enter and update information on health facilities and the availability of hospital beds and medical services. It was primarily designed to help relief workers identify neighboring health facilities so that they can efficiently arrange patient transfers,” explains Google Product Manager Prem Ramaswami. This is the first time it has been used during a disaster situation. (See it here)

Social media's involvement in disaster relief will continue to evolve and expand in the future. Hopefully the new tools, new organizational approaches, and unexpected players in the social media game will have a positive impact on getting aid to those who need it.