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Social media

Help is coming via twitter

by Eva-Maria Verfürth

In brief

Bushman using a mobile phone in the Kalahari desert, South Africa

Bushman using a mobile phone in the Kalahari desert, South Africa

Due to the uprisings in the Arab World, everybody knows that social media offer far more than chatting or online games. They have also ­become an indispensable tool for emergency aid, providing digital maps and helping medical doctors find patients.

Ever since the earthquake in Haiti, the internet platform Ushahidi has become an important tool for the UN. The Red Cross in Libya uses it too, coordinating its food supply schemes. Ushahidi is a project run by volunteers. Patrick Meier, the director of Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping team, says the successful mission in Haiti was a pure gut reaction: “I wanted to do something; it didn’t matter what.” Meier was surprised by the achievements: “A couple of students in snowy Boston were saving lives in Haiti.”

Ushahidi is made up of digital maps on which events can be posted. The platform was founded in Kenya in 2008, initially to document post-election violence. Later on, Al-Jazeera used Ushahidi to chart acts of war in the Palestinian territories.

Ushahidi was first used for disaster relief after the earthquake in Haiti last year. The creators collected messages on Facebook, Twitter and SMS, and they used information from traditional media and the NGOs that were active in the affected ­areas. They posted all of this information on their digital map, thus helping aid organisations find people in need.

Since most of the messages were written in French Creole, the IT enthusiasts in Boston asked for assistance on Twitter. Volunteer translators from all around the world responded, and together, they managed to have every message online in English within ten minutes.

In the meantime, the volunteer taskforce has helped in other countries too. The 500-plus Ushahidi volunteers are living in over 50 countries and include former emergency workers, airport staff and doctors.

Patrick Meier’s latest project is a map of Libya. He was asked to conduct this project by the head of the UN’s information management because there was very little independent information from the war zones. Different rules apply to the Libya project than to the others. Only a limited number of selected “reporters” are allowed to send news. At first, only the aid agencies get access to such data. The information is only made available to the public 24 hours later. “Repressive regimes are ­using communication technologies for their own purposes,” Meier explains. In Sudan, for instance, officers of President Omar Al-Bashir’s government pretended to be opponents of the regime on Facebook and appealed for protests against the regime – only to arrest and torture those who showed up to demonstrate.

Health care through twitter

During the unrest in Côte d’Ivoire, some sick and injured people received help with the aid of a Twitter lifeline. “I have never seen anything like it,” says Claire Ulrich, who, as a Global Voices editor and jury member for the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards, is an expert in these matters. Parts of Abidjan were completely sealed off, she says, when opponents of incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept his defeat in the elections, besieged his residence. Food and medicine ran out and ambulances and doctors could no longer make their rounds. A few private individuals defined a hashtag (a keyword on Twitter) which those in need could use to send calls for help via mobile phones. Thanks to such information, aid agencies such as the Red Cross were able to send help and distribute medicine in an organised manner.

An Ivorian refugee in Ghana expanded the operation by setting up a call centre in Accra. Again via Twitter, a free telephone number was provided. Those in need could turn to it via SMS, and volunteers in Accra returned the calls, listened to the worries and passed on the information to aid organisations. “In some cases, doctors from abroad even gave medical advice over the phone,” reports Ulrich. In her view, a great advantage of Twitter is that it can be easily accessed from mobile phones. That is even possible in remote regions of the Sahara, where desert dwellers use Twitter to warn one another of bush fires.

Good or evil

Opinions are divided on what social media can really achieve. In April, some three thousand participants of the “re:publica” conference in Berlin discussed their political significance. Meier and Ulrich were among them.

In the revolutions in the Arab World, which were largely started via social networks, new media have been contributing to mobilising people politically. However, 10.2 % of all internet users are Latin Ameri­cans, but their usage of the internet is apolitical, as two bloggers from Brazil and Argentina lament. Their societies’ lack of political culture is thus reflected online. Latinos chat, shop and tell jokes online, but they do not seem likely to trigger revolutions on the web.

During the Côte d’Ivoire crisis, Claire Ulrich also witnessed a terrible side of ­social media. Shocking images of torture were published online and commented on maliciously by the users. “It’s just media”, she sums up. “It’s the people behind that make it good or evil.”

Eva-Maria Verfürth