But public attention, or the lack thereof, is creating pressures on governments to respond in certain ways to certain crises. What does it mean when the world is tuning in to – and commenting on – complex global issues?
Changing the way we talk about disasters
There is no doubt that diplomacy, in times of crisis, has changed significantly over Canada’s history. Policy makers and diplomats no longer have the luxury of carefully planning humanitarian or military responses behind closed doors. Citizens now have access to a platform – the internet - that allows them to both easily consume the news, and a platform to spread out their own thoughts, views and demands. The result: people expect near-instant responses to crises that are often complex in nature. It is a tricky minefield to navigate through – especially in a world where everyone is talking.
The reality is, people can now do more than just talk using their devices. They can mobilize large groups of people and money using things like social media; they can leverage public opinion for support, and now, can even engage in forms of digital humanitarianism to complement more traditional forms of humanitarian support, such as by using satellite data to update maps for relief workers on the ground. Anyone with an internet connection and a willingness to help can support relief efforts thousands of kilometers away. But public attention is often both fickle and short, following increasingly shorter media cycles, and is often diverted long before the response to the crisis is over. Now more than ever, the public plays a role in shaping the policy and response to crises at an individual level, and also by influencing governments, corporations and other societal leaders.
The Ebola Crisis: Data and Aid
What started out as a slow – but deadly – Ebola outbreak quietly became an epidemic across three countries. Heightened media attention after a period of inattention eventually compelled swift action in the form of aid and resources from the international community. Organizations such as MSF have since argued that the slow response has cost thousands of lives.
In part, the slow response can be attributed to the lack of means of citizens in communicating via the global networks we have come to expect, as Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia had some of the lowest cell phone penetration rates in the world. The world’s poor do not always have equal access to the voice that digital technologies can provide. It was only after the issue began gaining international media traction that the issue spread like wildfire around the world. Of course, this is only one reason among a slew of structural issues that are still being analyzed.
Interestingly, the response to the Ebola crisis was often digital as well. Digital media fuelled frenzied panic around the world, and fuelled responses to that panic. It fuelled humanitarian responses via data tracing. And finally, when news of a Canadian-funded and developed vaccine was announced, Canadians proudly commended their country for their response, which has helped to significantly curtail the ongoing outbreak.
The April 2015 earthquake in Nepal was swift and devastating, as thousands of people lost their lives. The response was swift: people around the world shared their condolences, donated to the cause, and got mapping. Nepal, with its limited resources, was assisted by the efforts of volunteers from around the world who logged in and helped to map out relief efforts. These efforts, combined with the hard work of on-the-ground Nepalese, helped in recovery and share news and progress for those villages that were still connected. Open data in particular assisted in tracking, coordinating and mapping relief efforts.
The Syrian crisis helps to map out the strengths and limitations of digital technologies and tools in responding to crises around the worlds. Social media helped to instigate and shape the Arab Spring, a hopeful revolution that, despite the best intentions, ultimately destabilized a region. Technology recorded blatant human rights abuses by a variety of actors - government and non-government, which caused fighting to accelerate. Social media in particular, has been used as a tool to recruit new combatants for civil conflict, but also Technology captured the plight of refugees as they sought safety and security, but it also created space for the heated debates that would ensue about how to support those refugees. And finally, technology captured the tragic image of Alan Kurdi, a three year old fleeing with his family, and one of the many tragic images that contributed to renewed global attention on the situation in the Middle East.
All three examples discussed in this article can only provide a snapshot of the way that technology is re-shaping the way we understand and respond to global crises. Crises, already situations calling for complex interventions, are taking on new shapes due to the increased opportunity for citizens from around the world to become involved – and for technologies themselves to support the delivery of support, such as via mobile payments for disaster relief and digital tracing of people and aid to hasten response and planning efforts. Digital humanitarianism efforts often complement those on the ground, and citizen-advocates are both assisting and holding relief organizations accountable. However, the dual nature of digital tools – the ability to capture and influence public attention, and to mobilize or reduce support, both human and financial – make them tools that can yield both positive and negative outcomes. Policy makers – both those offering support, and those receiving it - must take care to balance the response.