[Guest blog post by Catherine Caron, a postgraduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she got a MSc in Development Management and wrote her dissertation on “The Impact of Web 2.0 Tools on the Humanitarian Aid Industry:  A Case Study of the Response to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake”]

The last decade saw the rise of both costlier natural disasters and more interactive web features. Therefore in my MSc dissertation this summer, I tried to look at how workers of humanitarian organizations involved in the Haiti earthquake response perceive the impact of web 2.0 (web tools that give users both consumer and producer roles, e.g. crowdsourcing like Ushahidi, social networking sites, blogs, wikis, etc.) on their industry.  I did this through interviews and questionnaires with 26 of them.  This schema illustrates the interactions between the main stakeholders of emergency aid, each arrow and bubble representing an area that can be affected by 2.0 technologies.  I sought to uncover the areas where 2.0 is seen as useful, and where it is rather considered a promise that fails to deliver.


Theory: many promises

I wanted to investigate this since in theory, 2.0 offers features that are especially applicable to emergency responses. The 2.0 characteristics address key criticisms of humanitarianism:

  • Centralization and bureaucratic approaches

Problem – They bring lacks of incentive mechanisms and responsiveness.  Adaptability is crucial in emergency response since those are characterised by complexity or chaos.

2.0 remedy – 2.0 relies on decentralization strategies, and those have found applications for humanitarianism, like Ushahidi crowdsourcing effort.

  • Humanitarian Expertise

Problem – Such expertise is increasingly accused of continuing neo-colonial subordination, artificially sustaining humanitarian elite, and creating a false impression of political neutrality.

2.0 remedy With 2.0, more than ever before, the amateur voices and contents compete with those of experts.  On Youtube for instance, a Haitian citizen video is not classified differently from a Red Cross report.

  • Accountability

Problem – Unlike firms and governments characterized by systems of purchase and vote, aid lacks mechanisms ensuring that beneficiaries can make donors and humanitarians accountable.

2.0 remedy – Social media, project 4636 and crowdsourced translation are all examples of 2.0 tools that give more voice to the victims. In the same way, organizations can use new media to improve their reporting to civil society.

This sounds all very promising, but on the ground, how do humanitarians feel Web 2.0 really impact their industry?


Reality: a mitigated picture

On Complexity and Centralization

  • Instead of helping the coordination of complexity, the abundance and unvalidated nature of 2.0 tools, as well as 2.0 data, added another complexity dimension to the emergency management.  Innovations need to be screened and implemented before the emergency.
  • Tools offering flexibility management do not in themselves address the issue of organizational rigidity and risk aversion.
  • The extent to which methods like Mission 4636 are inducing a biased response towards citizens already at advantage (because of their ICT access) has yet to be addressed.
  • The news production is altered and more decentralised as NGO increasingly use of social media to become media producers themselves. They believe they create more detailed, frequent, persistent, and interactive information with 2.0.
  • However, most organizations fail to monitor those web interactions’ reception, understanding, and scale amongst their constituencies. This matters since in social media, popularity is not synonymous of influence.
  • Over-decentralization of the response can result in a silo-effect of remoteness and overlap.
  • Humanitarians underlined the expanded amount of available information, the fact that it is more detailed, and the speed brought to information management, all 1.0 rather than 2.0 features. Respondents reported nearly no effect on resilience, accuracy and flexibility.

On Expertise

  • The 2.0 shift from expertise to trust mechanisms needs to be nurtured. Otherwise, humanitarians will primarily rely on long-established sources of information like the UN.
  • There are doubts on the reliability of the crowd on future less-popular and mediated emergencies, as well as on the reliability of the validation process’ speed.
  • It seems that workers would be more receptive to collaborative problem-solving done amongst specialists (bounded crowdsourcing).

On Accountability

  • Aside from a small proportion of the Diaspora, 2.0 interactions with Haitians have carried a very small, if not anecdotal, weight.
  • Local voice is however indirectly augmented via improved NGO media coverage, though the extent to which such coverage corresponds to mere self-marketing is debatable.
  • A majority of organizations seem unconcerned with new media ethics.
  • There is potential for 2.0 data to construct a picture of the aid effort that will allow donors and taxpayers to bypass the current traditional biased reporting methods of accountability.

On organizational practices

  • Reasons to implement social media within humanitarian organizations include herd effects, keeping a competitive edge, savings, and promotional self-interests.
  • Social media have a significant role in networking, partnerships creation, and forum interaction. However, the participants also stressed the crucial importance of human networks built before disasters.
  • Social media are especially valued for visibility, constituencies’ feedback and fundraising, and accountability to donors and members.

In brief, humanitarian organizations mainly use 1.0 features as well as communicational aspects of the 2.0 generation, rather than problem-solving ones.  The case study finds little empowerment or direct influence of 2.0 on the victims. But web 2.0 can be said to be indirectly impacting the field positively by its resonance within humanitarian organizations themselves and in their relation with civil society.  Unfortunately, this implies that the matter is again situated in Western hands.

However, despite their shy reliance on 2.0, what is striking is the number of respondents who nevertheless expressed their faith in the potential of 2.0 innovations for the future. Let’s hope that the work of Ushahidi and others can live up to their expectations.

* Note:  “Change before you have to” is a quote from Jack Welch. CEO General Electric, 1981-2001.