Information Saves Lives

People in the Philippines need information as much as food, water and shelter. As the world watches the devastation and the human tragedy caused by Typhoon Haiyan in unending images on our television screens, remember that we have infinitely more information than the victims do. They are living through this nightmare in the dark, not just cold and hungry, but terrified not knowing where to turn for help or what's coming next.

Survivors of disasters all tell a similar story. The world they knew, the familiar buildings and landmarks, all disappear in seconds. Their friends and families are missing. Communications are down. They are confused, desperate for someone to tell them what's happening and what's coming in the hours and days ahead. Parents frantically search for their children. Fear is as great as grief.

Previous humanitarian emergencies have demonstrated the value of local media for the survivors. When Kathleen Reen flew into Banda Aceh, two days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 200,000 people, nearly eighty percent of the city had been destroyed. She brought with her a portable "suitcase" radio transmitter and enough food and water to last her for a week. Driving along one of the few navigable roads still intact in the disaster zone that night she stopped at an outdoor kiosk where there was a small television set connected to a satellite dish and a car battery. The news about the tsunami was being broadcast from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. There was no information that was useful to the survivors. Only local media could provide that. Perhaps half of the local journalists had been killed and most of the radio stations destroyed. The UN and humanitarian organizations, with their finely-tuned logistical systems, the envy of any army, were busy delivering emergency food and shelter to the survivors. Helping local media get on their feet was not among their priorities. But local media are the ones who can best deliver the information that people need.

Reen found the owner of Prima FM, sitting alone at home in a state of shock. His station had been destroyed and all four of his staff who were working that morning were killed. But Reen convinced him that he needed to get back on the air as soon as possible. "Let's do it here," he said and they took the "radio in a suitcase" and resurrected the station. Nigel Snoad, a computer science engineer leading the UN Joint Logistics Centre donated a box of cell phones, Reen bought SIM cards and distributed the phones to every local journalist reporting on the emergency. They created an SMS news aggregator, a virtual mini-news information service where messages could be exchanged among many journalists at a time. The system also proved an effective feedback mechanism to relay information back to the UN headquarters.

Five years later when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake ravaged Haiti there was a greater appreciation of the importance of local media in a disaster. Just a week before the quake, a group of media and humanitarian NGO's had formed CDAC, Communicating With Disaster Affected Communities, to coordinate assistance to local media. The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also created a unit to assist local media. Within days Internews, a non-profit media development NGO, brought together a team of Haitian journalists to produce Enfomasyon Nou Dwe Konnen, Creole for News You Can Use, a daily program providing critical information about water distribution points, displaced persons and public health advisories. There had been close to three hundred radio stations in Haiti when the disaster hit, twenty-one of them in Porte-au-Prince, but only one, Signal FM, never went off the air during the quake. Within a few weeks forty-one stations were running and News You Can Use became a vital source of information for all of them. "Radio stations are holding the country together," one expat told the Associated Press. "They're kind of replacing the government in a sense."

As humanitarian relief workers deploy to the Philippines and millions of people contribute to help the survivors, it is important to remember that local media are important, that people also need information, that information saves li