Can standardised hashtags be effective in emergency responses?
Jessica MacLean is the Research and Projects Assistant at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF). In 2013, Jessica graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) with an undergraduate degree in Development Studies and Politics. Prior to joining EISF she spent six months working in Sierra Leone. During the summer of 2013 Jessica was a communications, legal and policy research intern at International Refugee Rights Initiative – Rights in Exile Programme, a refugee legal aid online platform in Oxford.
After the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, a study found that social media platforms, especially Twitter, were extremely beneficial during the disaster to citizens and widely used by most directly affected individuals. While the Japanese Government was not as active on Twitter during the 2011 disaster, relief and volunteer organisations were and found social media to the most reliable source of information during the disaster. The Government of the Philippines was one of the first governments to standardise and use hashtags on Twitter to disseminate information and respond to urgent needs during Typhoon Bopha in 2012.
Standardised hashtags can be used by governments and aid organisations to distribute information to the public, and respond to urgent needs and requests. The hashtags should be used interactively, coordinated and collaborated with between the sectors. Twitter users then tweet with the respective hashtags to notify governments and aid agencies about needs of affected communities and urgent requests.
Twitter has 288 million monthly active users and the website supports 33 different languages. The social media website allows registered users to tweet 140 characters to a real-time public news feed. Hashtags, thematic word categorisers, allow users to identify topics they have an interest in. For example the Philippines have used #YolandaPH for the 2013 Typhoon. A set of standardised hashtags can help mitigate the big data challenge of an overflow of information during a disaster.
Recognising its potential, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair (UN OCHA) produced a report entitled, Hashtag Standards for Emergencies. This report suggests three hashtags, which should be standardised and used during an emergency. A specific hashtag for the name of the disaster, one for public reporting and another one for emergency response needs. In order for emergency responders to provide effective and location accurate responses, global positioning systems (GPS) must be turned on.
The American Red Cross reported that Internet users are increasingly relying on social media to seek help in a disaster. 69% of responders to that survey felt that emergency responders should be monitoring social media platforms and responding to urgent requests. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a group of digital humanitarians mapped tweets following the disaster on the Ushahidi open-source mapping platform. This innovation developed from crisis tweets was then used operationally by the US Marine Corps to find trapped individuals and to work jointly with aid organisations.
Delivered successfully, a Government in conjunction with aid organisations, promotes the use of unified hashtags and GPS enabling, it then coordinates information distribution, monitors and tracks the flow of tweets for relief and rescue efforts. In these few cases, the use of standardised hashtags has been successful, however the strategy has not been widely used. Where do aid agencies come in?
There are possibilities for aid organisations to participate in promoting the use of standardised hashtags to affected communities and to respond to some of the urgent needs and rescue requests. In spite of that fact, the efforts to use this approach during the recent Ebola outbreak encountered challenges.
The use of standardised hashtags was promoted by UN OCHA in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Individuals then used the hashtags to report Ebola victims in need, although there were reports of tweets not being responded to in Koinadugu and Western Area districts of Sierra Leone. Although it must be taken into account that the Government of Sierra Leone was completely overstretched and lacked the human and technological capacity to implement such a system. The possibilities for aid organisations to respond to urgent Ebola victim needs from Twitter are low. Most aid organisations working on the Ebola response do not have ambulances to go collect Ebola patients.
Another challenge of the use of standardised hashtags during disasters concerns the spread of misinformation on Twitter and potential security implications for aid workers. There was a sharp increase in targeted violence against aid workers in 2013. In separate incidents, there have been many attacks against Ebola responders due to misinformation and stigma in Guinea where the standardised hashtags were being promoted. Many armed groups are very active on Twitter. If, during a disaster there is also a conflict dynamic, like South Sudan, the risk is that armed groups or bandits could misinform using the standardised hashtags and potentially target aid workers.
Levels of effectiveness
Determining the level of effectiveness of standardised hashtags during emergencies depends on the number of Twitter users there are in the affected areas. One of the reasons why the use of unified hashtags was successful in the Philippines was due to the fact that as of August 2012 there are 9.5 million Twitter users in the country. The use of standardised hashtags was less successful during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as the three countries Twitter use was at the bottom of the scale on a global heatmap of Twitter use.
Another aspect relating to the levels of effectiveness of standardised hashtags is the language in which they are promoted. Could standard hashtags been more successful in Guinea if they were in French rather than English? Or promoted in Krio, Mende or Temne in Sierra Leone? For standard hashtags to be beneficial to those in affected areas of emergencies, they need to be promoted and used in the language of the country.
In short, for standardised hashtags to be effective aid organisations and governments need to work collaboratively to monitor and collect information on the needs and urgent requests of affected individuals. Whilst promoting standard hashtags is important, it is vital for governments and aid organisations to fulfil their ultimate objectives of delivering emergency relief to all affected communities.
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