It is very easy to call technology "evil" during normal times, when nature or man's insanity has not caused havoc to human existence. Yet, when crisis strikes, it is terrifying to think of a world without technology. The advent of digital tools such as social media, private communication devices and sensor and broadcasting technologies, has significantly altered how people and organizations respond to disasters, by influencing the way people seek, obtain, process, and communicate information and find solace and support.
Social networking and micro/regular-blogging technologies have created a new form of journalism - the citizen journalism, which has replaced traditional news avenues as the messenger, especially during disaster times. A study on social-mediated crisis communication showed that people were more likely to read links to crisis news on their friends' network pages rather than going to traditional news sources such as news papers for information. There was however a tipping point - once people noticed a trend in their social media networks of a crisis discussion they tended to seek traditional media coverage of these crises. There is no doubt that last week, as the Paris attacks were still unfolding, social media sites played a critical role as the predominant source of information. Research shows that technology benefited citizen journalism during the Indian Ocean Earthquake, the 2005 London Underground and Bus Bombings, and the 2005 US Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Apart from dissemination of news at an impersonal level, the digital age is best suited for communication among loved ones, in the event of disaster and in coordinating relief efforts. It has been found that the public was more likely to use media that met a larger number of their needs (e.g., information-seeking, socialization, and emotional support) and as a way to have a more immediate personal connection to each other. Little wonder then that many traditional news agencies, like CNN, have resorted to using the power of citizen journalism by encouraging the public to send in their stories as text, photographs or videos.
Social networking sites also rise to meet the challenge during times of crisis by developing special tools that help people get the information and support they seek. For example, Facebook's Safety Check tool that allows users in an area affected by a crisis to mark themselves or others as safe, was extensively used during the Paris attacks of last week. Tweeters in Paris used the hashtag #porteouverte to offer shelter to people stranded in the city after the disaster. In a recent less-popular natural havoc caused by rains in peninsular India, the twitter hashtag #chennairains was instrumental in communicating status and accurate met predictions to locals, which was useful in relief efforts. The use of social media in disaster situations has not gone unnoticed by the system; many organizations, both Government and NGOs, have started employing people solely to deal with social media. The American Red Cross, for example, reportedly uses social media to share information on the organization's ongoing disaster preparation work, medical training, and support to the armed forces.
But beyond communication, public social networking can also help in nabbing culprits - it is well-known that in the Boston Marathon bombing, the photos taken by the public at the finish line of the marathon and posted on social network sites played a decisive role in tracking down the suspects. Since the 9/11 disaster, much attention has been paid to development of tools to cull information from all sources during crisis times for management and resolution. Interoperable communications, that enable communication between responders during natural or manmade disasters are being actively developed, such as the iDAWG, developed by Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. The iDAWG is designed to maintain communication between different devices without relying on cell towers or Internet networks, which may be compromised during disaster.
But technology is not only about communication - technological tools help assess damage and offer accurate insights, especially during natural disasters. While technology cannot prevent an earthquake, hurricane or a volcanic eruption, it can undoubtedly provide the scientific knowledge and technical know-how, which can help in planning community response and relief operations. 1990-1999 was called the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, during when the United Nations General Assembly called for a concerted worldwide effort to develop and use scientific and technical knowledge, in order to underpin the adoption and implementation of public policies for disaster prevention. Such efforts have enabled significant progress in the integrated approach to the management of natural disasters. Powerful data analyzing algorithms along with satellite imaging techniques are now available to the general public that can detect or predict floods in real time; indeed amateur climate aficionados used such algorithms to predict the movement of the depression that caused havoc in the Indian peninsula this week. Similarly, tools such as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), a web-based public tool for monitoring floods, utilize image processing algorithms to monitor floods at a global scale.
But technology is not all good, especially when it comes to man-made disasters. On a very basic level, open access to media of mass communication leads to issues of trust, driven by the difficulty in verifying and validating the credibility and intention of the information as well as the sources. Social media, for example can just as easily become a source of misinformation as information. Rumors, initiated and spread by attention seeking, fear mongering individuals, can cause more damage in an already sensitive situation.
But even more dangerous is the use of technology by the perpetrators of the crime itself. In an article titled 'Combating terrorism through technology', Marshall Billingslea, Assistant Secretary General of NATO's Defense Investment Division, and Chairman of NATO's CNAD and the NC3 Board states that "The destructive capacity of terrorist groups is growing steadily as terrorists prove themselves adept at using modern technology for their own ends." The ease and convenience of access, immense and geographically dispersed audiences, and lack of regulation or censorship enable rogue groups to recruit, train, motivate, and coordinate anti-human activities over vast distances without direct contact.
Our world is too complex and interconnected to defend against all possible threats without the human element. While short of living in a super-bubble, we cannot really defend ourselves against natural disasters, man-made disasters are certainly within the purview of the human mind to cause or cease. It is easy to develop tools and weapons to both attack and counter-attack, but it takes the indomitable human spirit to cease and not cause pain, and this hinges on the mental well-being of each individual. The ubiquitous digital age can provide the tools to enhance the well-being of individuals, society, and the planet itself by sowing seeds of empathy and compassion, but it takes human will to nurture them. Only the humanness inside us can change a father's words to his son from "they might have guns, but we have flowers" to "All of us have flowers". When that happens, technology would have certainly become an unquestionable boon to mankind.
Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who studies the complex interplay of technology, parenting and education.
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