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Column: Are you in or out? Welcome to the great digital divide

The facts are clear: if we want to continue to help the most vulnerable people in this digital age, we must provide the nuts and bolts for the bridge to cross the digital divide, writes John Roche.

John Roche

DRONES DROPPING AID parcels. Universal internet access via balloons. Disaster responders volunteering at the touch of a button. Tweets and apps that save lives.

Technology is transforming the face of humanitarian action; connecting people and fostering the exchange of information in ways that would have seemed impossible just five years ago.

Simply put, connectivity is aid. But today, this technology is only helping a fraction of those most in need. There is a chasm between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Take internet access as an example: a mere 31 per cent in low-income countries have internet access, compared to a massive 77 per cent in high-income countries.

Welcome to the digital divide.

First responders need life-saving technologies

Who were those most vulnerable to disasters in 2012? Those living in the least developed countries. Although the overall number of people affected by disasters last year decreased, in the poorest countries it actually increased. Then add this fact into the mix: over 90 per cent of lives saved after disasters are saved by local people. Unfortunately, in such vulnerable contexts, these ‘first responders’ are the least likely to have access to life-saving technologies, such as early warning systems and life-saving text messages, despite being those who would benefit most both to better prepare for disasters and to recover faster.

Here in Ireland, the Irish Red Cross recognised the need of bridging information gaps for those first on the scene. This year, we launched a smartphone app putting first aid knowledge in to everyone’s hand; quick and easy tips for everyday first aid, along with step by step guides for how to prepare for emergencies. With this app the Irish Red Cross can send emergency push notifications to warn the public of imminent dangers, such as flooding and severe weather, in real-time fashion.

As the 2013 issue of Red Cross’ World Disasters Report argues, the best way to ensure that communities are resilient is by investing in developing the capacity of community members to be the responders and organisers of their own relief. In achieving this, technology has a critical role to play.

Digital inclusion is saving lives

Although digital exclusion is increasing vulnerability, digital inclusion is saving lives. How? The digital age offers the potential to turn the traditionally top-down model of humanitarian response on its head. The people on the receiving end of emergency aid, who until recently were far from where decisions are made, can now identify and voice their own needs directly. They can also design their own solutions through technology by mobilising local, national and sometimes global support.

Take the beneficiary communications and outreach programme in the Indonesian Province of Aceh, a community devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Irish Red Cross piloted this scheme with the aim of using technology to help the population develop skills they needed to find solutions to the problems they faced .The communities we worked with could send information about their challenges and unmet needs via SMS, and in return, the Red Cross held two-way discussions with community members through radio, print media and local TV; open dialogue between affected populations and service providers.

Large-scale emergencies often provide opportunities for innovation, and preparedness using technology has been proven to work. Take Bangladesh, where there has been a 200-fold reduction in fatalities between cyclones in 1970 and 2007. Much of this huge success has been down to early warning systems using a range of technologies, from weather prediction technology to mobile phones and megaphones. This example also supports our experience – many of the best solutions come from the disaster-prone communities themselves.

Bridging the divide

How can we bridge this digital divide? Through collaboration amongst the humanitarian sector, corporations, governments and communities we serve. The humanitarian sector cannot do this alone. As technology continues to play an ever more important role in society, evolving to keep up with progress is only going to get more difficult and more expensive.

Partnerships between humanitarian organisations, governments and private sector companies are critical to harnessing the full potential of technology to improve the resilience of affected communities. Our solutions are only going to be as good as the partnerships we forge. And they need to happen now.

For example a partnership between the Red Cross and the telecommunications company Trilogy has led to the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), which has enabled 3 million people in Haiti to receive hurricane warnings and disease prevention advice. At an estimated cost of 3 million US dollars, this was only achievable through partnership.

The next steps are clear – if we want to continue to help the most vulnerable people in this digital age, we must provide the nuts and bolts for the bridge to cross the digital divide. If we do not, we are in danger of recreating or exacerbating existing inequalities by only listening to those who are connected. Access to information and communication technologies for at-risk communities must be recognised as a basic need and priority alongside health, food, water and shelter.

The future of humanitarian action depends on it. For all of us, individuals, technology providers, governments and private corporations, and indeed humanitarian organisations – this is a responsibility, not a choice.

On 23 October, the Irish Red Cross will launch the 2013 World Disaster Report in Ireland – the focus of this year is ‘Technology and the future of humanitarian aid’.

John Roch is the Head of International at the Irish Red Cross. He has over 20 years’ professional experience in humanitarian response and development across Africa, Eastern Europe Central Asia and South Asia. As an ICRC delegate, John was involved in many of the major complex emergencies and conflicts during the 1990s , managing some of the ICRCs largest humanitarian operations in Somalia, Sudan and the Balkans .

About the author:

John Roche

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