A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to work for a short time with an NGO based out of Copenhagen called Refugees United. More commonly know as Refunite, this is an NGO which has technology at the heart of it’s work, it is an ICT4D organisation to the core. They provide a mobile and online platform in order to help people find missing family or friends who have been displaced or separated and they work primarily in Africa and the Middle East. Anyone is able to sign up to their platform and can search online, through mobile or via free telephone toll-lines.
But the point is not just about this particular NGO. This is merely brief reflection on the reach that ICTs give, the possibilities that the technological tools at the disposal of NGOs have. When Zuckerberg declares, without a hint of irony, that Facebook is about ‘connecting the world’ it screams of a kind of maniacal egotism. But when ICTs are harnessed, for example, to enable CONNECTION that brings families back together, it is perhaps best to cast our cynicism aside. When real impact can be measured we have a responsibility to exploit the tools that are now commonplace in our societies. When distances can be traversed in the virtual world in nanoseconds, there opens up a landscape in which people in the real world reap real benefits. It is noteworthy too that ICTs, such as the one Refunite employ, are examples of horizontal use rather than vertical – it is people checking on each other and not being checked on – See: NSA. The communication and information exchange is transmitted between members of a group instead of being transmitted to them from the outside (Mirca lecture, 2016). The world of ‘development’ is characterised by criticisms of top-down hegemony, particularly with ICTs, so if this is box we can uncheck then all the better for it.
Keeping with the subject of impact of ICTs, the Ushahidi platform is most certainly worth a mention. Making heavy use of crowdsourcing, Ushahidi is a non-profit software organisation mainly known for it’s interactive mapping by its enthusiastic and resourceful users. The 2010 Haiti earthquake quickly drew people ranging from skillful cartographers to Haitian diaspora together to create live maps of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and surroundings in order to aid in the rescue and humanitarian efforts of the local authorities and international organisations on the ground. The most detailed ever roadmap of Haiti was crowdsourced within just a few days by hundreds of volunteers and by exploiting SMS technology, people on the ground were able to pass on information which enabled rescue efforts to be made through a virtual spider-web of information. With global collaboration, this was technological humanitarianism (Manning, 2012) at work.
The ubiquity of the internet means that it’s not just slacktavists with their sad emoji faces who respond virtually to crises. It is people who can provide expertise, it is people on the ground having reciprocatory dialogues with victims, is is people a thousand miles away. This form of assistance can be crucial to not just the immediate needs of victims of disasters but to secondary ones too. Flows of communication with families and friends help with coping, with rebuilding lives and reclaiming normality. The influx of information provides reassurance and the presence of technology enables witnessing and understanding. Disaster management has changed, the impact of ICTs have changed it.