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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

Geneva Forum on Social Change

Last weekend, I attended a great event  called the Geneva Forum on Social Change. I moderated a panel called “New Technologies and Humanitarian Response: Accelerating Impact.”  Here is the description of the panel from the website:


New technologies and open engagement have had a powerful effect on the way in which organizations respond to crises. As the world faces new threats, greater access to these technologies will be vital to more rapid humanitarian response.  Combining a concern for humanity and technological innovation can create incredible results that save lives and empower people to create change in their communities. Now more than ever, disaster relief operations and development efforts require that we leverage real-time information and open collaboration. Learn how emerging technologies in crisis mapping, crowd sourcing and mobile communications have changed the humanitarian landscape and what the implications are on the ground.


Edward Happ, Chief Information Officer, IFRC
Anahi Ayala Iacucci, New Media Consultant and Crisis Mapper
Sreenath Sreenivasan, Professor of Digital Technology at Columbia University School of Journalism


Speaker Summary:

Sreenath Sreenivasan, discussed how our attitude towards humanitarian responses is changing as more individuals are empowered to help when disasters strike. He presented the main findings from these two articles:

5 things I learned from #egypt, #bahrain, etc:

5 things I learn from #japanquake, #prayforjapan, etc:

I asked him whether or not the shock factor of seeing these types of events unfold online would eventually diminish as social media reporting becomes normal. I wondered if our willingness to participate in relief efforts would decline if we regularly saw these types of images.

Sree acknowledged that right now one of the main factors of participation is the novelty of experiencing thesetypes of events as a globally connected population, but remained optimistic that new systems of collaboration would continue to emerge and create more efficient ways for regular people to play a part in coordinated online relief efforts.


Edward Happ, CIO of the Red Cross, presented how a traditional NGO like the Red Cross was using Social Media tools to improve the services they already provide to those in need. In particular he referenced the Red Cross’ use of SMS campaigns to raise millions of dollars during the Haiti earthquake and their use of twitter and facebook to share breaking news as these events unfolded.

His main take away was the importance of applying a sound and well thought out strategy when building technology capacity that takes into account the intention of how you want to use it.  He also heavily suggested that you observe your beneficiaries and use the technologies that they have already adopted instead of building something from scratch. Ed also recommended the Disaster 2.0 Report produced by the UN as required reading for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of how technology is being applied in this space.

Here is his presentation:



Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media


Anahi Ayala Iacucci, spoke about the Stand By Task Force, a volunteer-based network that represents the first wave in Online Community Emergency Response Teams. Volunteers get trained year round to scour through various social media streams, identify those who are reporting from the front lines, and to add them to an interactive map.  Then, when a disaster strikes, the task force becomes activated and members become an essential part of the communication chain, helping to document the event as it happens. This helps NGOs and the media gain a bird’s eye view of a chaotic and unpredictable situation.

I asked Anahi what we could do to help and she immediately responded by saying “Sign up. Donate a few hours because every little bit makes a huge difference during a crisis.”


Final Thoughts:

The field of digital crisis response continues to be fascinating for me since the use of digital media is being used as a bridge connecting a global community of concerned citizens. These tools provide a balancing counterpart to being overwhelmed with information during a crisis – now we can channel that frustration and sympathy into a productive outlet that has a quantifiable impact.

I’m particularly interested in self-organized movements like the Stand By Task Force as they introduce new elastic business models that can be activated during times of need and dissolved after the job has been done. This new agile way of mobilizing provides a yet untapped reserve of manpower and resources especially to traditional NGOs who must deal with overly structured and bureaucratic operation systems.  It will be interesting to see what alliances develop in this space between these two types of approaches and how we can improve humanitarian responses as a whole.


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