The digital landscape has irrevocably altered the healthcare landscape. Even the most traditional of hospitals have a Facebook page where their patients clients friends can like them or (more meaningfully) provide feedback on the services. This trend towards social media is only beginning to affect humanitarian work, as their “core customers” are more likely to be those in Nepal or Haiti, post-disaster, and less likely to be using social media for interaction, information or in their daily lives. However, more tech-savvy humanitarian aid organizations are beginning to use social media, in the following ways:
Advocacy and Fund-Raising
Social media is a powerful tool for advocacy and for raising an issue. Big Media that has traditionally been monopolizing the creation and transmission of content, has now almost given way to citizen journalism, where the creation and transmission of content takes place by individuals who may be armed only with a smartphone, a camera, the courage to raise a concern, and a platform to let it be heard. There are benefits to crowd-sourced content: the immediacy of the content, the sheer visceral nature of the content, and the breadth of the content; three characteristics which Big Media isn’t able to provide.
Humanitarian organizations have realized that social media is a powerful tool for advocacy, and to rally the public to their cause. Advocacy, really, manifests itself in fund-raising, and this is also where social media excels. Witness the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that took place throughout summer 2014! Crowd-funding through sites like indiegogo.com are also popular, and allow the individual citizen to contribute to humanitarian work in a very direct way.
Social media can also be used to coordinate humanitarian assistance, in an informal way. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has a social media presence, and is beginning to experiment with ways to use social media to coordinate the response. This is because Twitter (for example) provides an easy, nimble and real-time way to relay information from the ground, to the HQ level in order that decisions can be made. This will make entire organisations more agile and responsive to the needs-based assessments that take place at ground level.
An example after the Nepal earthquake is the Kathmandu Living Lab, which used crowd-sourced data to create an open map of the earthquake.
Another way that social media can be used in disaster settings is in transparency of fund-raising and relief efforts. Tracking individual dollars is now made possible by the smaller NGOs who report every donation that they receive, via Twitter. In due course, perhaps even larger organisations like the Red Cross will take to reporting individual donations through Twitter, or in real-time.
Transparency of aid efforts will also be helpful for the aid recipients. Posting pictures via Twitter or Facebook will demonstrate that the money is being spent correctly and in the right areas.
However, there are also potential pitfalls. There would be the perennial issues of the quality of the data, and how to trust and verify the data. The privacy of the data generated is also a potential pitfall; not only details of the donor, but also pictures or details of the recipients. Finally, social media always has a taint of entertainment; would we be guilty of reductionism and then trivialize a disaster, if we put too many pictures of it on Facebook?