What Facebook Can Teach Us About Crisis Management

By Kate Moran

The world is in no short supply of humanitarian crises to mitigate, manage, and prevent. In 2016 alone, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that $20.1 billion is needed to help 125.3 million people displaced by war, famine, and natural disasters globally. This figure--and the number of those in need of aid--is sure to increase as the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe shows no signs of slowing, unrest persists in the Middle East, and every day it seems a new drought, earthquake, or other natural disaster results in thousands more dead and displaced.

In the wake of these incessant disasters, the global community is increasingly turning to technology to help with crisis mapping, aid management and distribution, and even crowdsourcing real-time information regarding events on the ground. After the Paris attacks in November 2015, Facebook activated its "Safety Check" feature to enable those impacted to update their families.

The question of how government agencies and humanitarian responders can better use social media and technology in emergency situations isn't new, yet it's increasingly relevant. As technology expands, so too should the ways in which we as a global community seek to use and harness it to implement more comprehensive humanitarian interventions--those that address immediate needs while anticipating future ones.

While technology might seem mystifying at times, and the ever-increasing availability of information--both critical and inconsequential--overwhelming, effective employment of both the technologies and the information available through them is essential to advancing dynamic humanitarian responses and in ensuring their timely implementation. In an increasingly connected world, technology's role in development and in driving humanitarian responses is elevated; using technology to coordinate aid delivery across geographies represents just one of the myriad possibilities.

Technology presents an opportunity by which the international community can learn from and engage with each other, and with the populations they are seeking to assist. If its potential is harnessed correctly, the digital world can exponentially improve response effectiveness, increase beneficiary reach, improve product delivery, and facilitate more meaningful and substantive connections between short-term assistance programs and longer-term development solutions.

Yet there is an element of technology that few consider when discussing humanitarian response applications: how they can be used by ordinary citizens on the ground. While Facebook offers a limited example of how technology might be employed for this purpose, the possibilities are far greater. Mobile technology alone can (and has been) used to assist in reconnecting families, to develop and disseminate early warning systems, increase access to internet and educational resources, ease mobile payments and vouchers, identify optimal logistics and routes, and map data analytics on the spread of disease. Many of these efforts, though organized on a broader scale by international bodies or government agencies, were driven by the input and continued use of ordinary citizens.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon now use smartcards developed by the World Food Programme to buy goods; in Sudan, UNICEF employed SMS messages to notify communities of vaccination campaigns while the Ministry of Health used them to promote good hygiene practices; and in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010, information culled from social media messages was used to devise a crisis map that ultimately enabled first responders to save hundreds of lives.

The layman's role in the collection of important information and its dissemination cannot be overlooked; if we are to truly maximize technology, we must provide better pathways for and increase individuals' access to them. Without a role for humans to play, technologies remain static shells, all potential with no practical application. Technologies must be developed to enhance humanitarian response effectiveness, but so should humans' capacity for participating in and advancing these technologies.

As Karl Schwab of the World Economic Forum explains: "Neither technology nor the disruption that comes with it is an exogenous force over which humans have no control. All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, in the decisions we make on a daily basis as citizens, consumers, and investors. We should thus grasp the opportunity and power we have to shape [it] and direct it toward a future that reflects our common objectives and values."

The Middle East and North Africa counts 121 million active Facebook users per month; we must only look to the Arab Spring uprisings in the winter of 2011 to see how the platform was leveraged to elevate the voices of youth and other activists. More recently, a grassroots campaign on Facebook raised thousands for cyclone relief in Fiji. This imparts a critical lesson: social media is powerful. It can be a rallying force for change, a vehicle for catalyzing collective action, a way of disseminating important and timely information, and a means of inspiring social good.

Technology holds many opportunities that the international community has yet to take full advantage of and we have much to learn about how to best employ new and innovative tools. At the end of the day, however, individual citizens have just as much to offer in the way of improving humanitarian response. Ultimately, humans are the ones who decide how technologies can and will be employed, to what end, and to which extent. Focusing on augmenting citizens' role in humanitarian response, then, must be a focus of overall humanitarian interventions if these technologies are to succeed and their potential maximized.

Kate Moran is a Program Assistant for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for International Private Enterprise, an international NGO that works to strengthen democracy and promote market-oriented economic reform. She has a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from Emory University, and currently serves as a Humanitarian Assistance Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.