Italy: Earthquakes create discussion and innovation

By: K. Tatakis

Earthquakes create notoriously big crises. When such natural phenomena suddenly strike communities causing fear and despair, humans try to find ways to be more helpful and effective. Earthquakes trigger solidarity and work as a stimulus for innovative ventures. Human energy comes out of the rumbles.

A big earthquake hit on August 24 the regions of Marche, Umbria and Abruzzo in Central Italy. Little townships like Amatrice and Accumoli were heavily devastated. Such regions were historically struck by earthquakes again and again during the last 5 centuries, but loss of lives was this time quiet high, compared to similar phenomena to other parts of Europe during 21st century, as many of the buildings were medieval and old stone structures.

Italy’s earthquake happened approximately at 3 AM local time and Twitter was a source of information particularly helpful to night- shift journalists. From the very first moment appeals to free Wi-Fi networks and help who suddenly stayed homeless in the middle of the road or had to search for missing persons were made in Italian social media.

Some insisted traditional during crisis

But initial calls for rescue generally happened the more traditional way.  Calling the emergency numbers of the Italian Firefighters, State Police or the Carabinieri. Calling for rescue via e-mails or digital apps was not the norm in the Italian case.  Despite this country is a member of the G8 and technologically far more advanced than Haiti, people preferred to make their calls mostly by phone and not via social media. Writing short messages like Meier suggested in the case of 2010 earthquake in Haiti was not very easy-going for someone desperately urging out of home, in the middle of the night. In most cases cellular phones and other more valuable items where simply left behind in an agonizing attempt of people to save their lives into the dark. An exception could be the case of a nun living at the Religious Institute Don Minozzi in Amatrice. She appeared on RAI News 24 TV Channel the days immediately after August 24 explaining how she sent SMS when living under the rumbles. But her case was not a call for help, rather than a “talk” of a person ready to die with her most beloved, sending ad Dio (to God) messages.

Source: Ministero dell’ Interno / Vigili del Fuoco (Italian Ministry of Interior / Italian Firefighters)

On the other hand people turned massively on Social media to inform and discuss about the earthquake and to talk about reconstruction and solidarity initiatives. Social media (mainly Twitter and Facebook) were the absolute protagonists in that sense. Citizen’s involvement in social media, this time locals and not mostly foreigners as Lillie Houliaraki (2013, p.273) noted for the case of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was much more evident in the Italian case. Campaigns for collecting money and blood but also to inform people on what to do during an earthquake started in a few hours. Facebook also activated Safety Check in order to find missing persons.

In his recent book Patrick Meier informs of a network that he and his peers gradually built in Boston in order to help Haiti hit by the 2010’s earthquake They were based on some of the most innovative technologies and the help of volunteers all over the world(Meier, 2015,p.5).

Meier’s positivistic view over big data is not at all unjustifiable. Big data can help in emergencies situations, but more importantly on monitoring health issues. In his book Meier’s suggests to enable GPS localization in our digital devices in order to be located during an emergency (Meier, 2015, p.175). In the Italian example, at least when looking at the initial earthquake of August 24, it is difficult to find cases that people where traced under the rumbles thanks to their GPS signals. There are two main explanations for that. The time that the earthquake happened (too early to carry a mobile phone with you, unless you slept with one in your pocket), but also the desire that often people have in more advanced societies to live under anonymity. In other words reluctance to share such personal data in big networks.

Meier supports the idea of “microtasking” (Meier, 2015, p.65) sharing small missions with volunteers in order to act faster and to save more people during a disaster. Such a task may sometimes require educated people with basic technological knowledges, but it is a meaningful idea over social change. According to Meier such a microtasking helps to enable better validation of sources, which is a real headache for people working on the social media. More eyes and more brains can check better what is originally published on the web (Meier, 2015, p.65-66). Similar projects are heavily based on “consensus” (Meier, 2015, p.68). People have to believe that big data is the next big thing and to share more data, in order to make the stats work for social change.

Transparency and big data

Transparency is another hot topic. All should contribute on giving data. But the next point is why not to make these data available to all? In one of his recent books about communication Manuel Castells underlines as an exchange, a reciprocal flow which is based to “interaction” (Castells, 2011, p. 55). How much of these data should be open and where it is advisable to be protected for reasons of personal privacy or security? That’s an ongoing discussion that will last for the whole century in my opinion, as it is a very complex matter.

Who will check the use of huge databases, once data often collected from private companies for profit? Will be any regulators to control such a use or the whole sector we will be left to the self-regulation of large private (or even state) entities for the common good?

Thoughts over data use transparency are in this sense a little limited in Meier’s book. The author prefers instead to develop more the concept of ‘democratization” of data (Meier, 2015, p.187) which is similar to data transparency, but not identical. Transparency over the use of data, but mainly over the control of data is what will be a cardinal point of conflict in the 21st century. Who will get control of these data will have a new soft but enormous tool of power, whether private or state entity… May be that’s inevitable, once you need huge amounts of money, resources and persons to carry over such a digital revolution. But politics over the use of these data should be clean and clear and citizens must have their say. Education over big data will also be cardinal in order to take the most positive things out of them. Citizens, companies, researchers and states should decide together about the future.

Overall Meier’s book is a must read for someone wanting to work with big data for humanitarian purposes and opens up many new windows of thought that will ferment new ideas in the future.  Stats and mathematics are better and more reliable than emotions as guide to who really needs help in an emergency situation (Meier, 2015, p.47). And it’s up to who will take decisions to make the best use of them.




Castells, Manuel (2011). Communication power, Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.

Houliaraki, Lillie (2013). RE-MEDIATION, INTER-MEDIATION, TRANSMEDIATION, Journalism Studies, 14:2, 267-283

Meier, Patrick (2015). Digital Humanitarians: How BIG DATA Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response, Boca Raton: CRC Press.

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1 comment

  1. Shahin Madjidian

    You point to an interesting division between how people used social media and telephones during the actual earthquake versus during the aftermath, when focus was on reconstruction and solidarity. Why do you think that was, apart from the fact that people don’t sleep with their cell phones in their pockets?

    I found Meier’s book almost too positive, so I am happy to see that you question much of what he writes too, even though he has plenty of positive energy and willingness to do good, which definitely should be encouraged. However, as I wrote in my post (, I believe that Meier is a very privileged actor with a vast network he can draw on. The data he works with is mostly coming in freely too, he doesn’t need to work for it, ask for permission, or pay for it.

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