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TEDxRC2

Paul Conneally: Digital humanitarianism

Filmed:

The disastrous earthquake in Haiti taught humanitarian groups an unexpected lesson: the power of mobile devices to coordinate, inform, and guide relief efforts. At TEDxRC2, Paul Conneally shows extraordinary examples of social media and other new technologies becoming central to humanitarian aid. (Filmed at TEDxRC2.)

- Aid worker
Paul Conneally is the public communications manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and a leader in using digital technologies for humanitarian aid. Full bio

The humanitarian model has barely changed
00:15
since the early 20th century.
00:18
Its origins are firmly rooted
00:20
in the analog age.
00:22
And there is a major shift coming on the horizon.
00:24
The catalyst for this change
00:28
was the major earthquake that struck Haiti
00:30
on the 12th of January in 2010.
00:33
Haiti was a game changer.
00:37
The earthquake destroyed the capital of Port-au-Prince,
00:40
claiming the lives of some 320,000 people,
00:44
rendering homeless
00:47
about 1.2 million people.
00:49
Government institutions were completely decapitated,
00:52
including the presidential palace.
00:55
I remember standing
00:58
on the roof of the Ministry of Justice
01:00
in downtown Port-au-Prince.
01:02
It was about two meters high,
01:04
completely squashed
01:06
by the violence of the earthquake.
01:08
For those of us on the ground in those early days,
01:10
it was clear for even the most disaster-hardened veterans
01:13
that Haiti was something different.
01:16
Haiti was something we hadn't seen before.
01:18
But Haiti provided us with something else unprecedented.
01:22
Haiti allowed us to glimpse into a future
01:25
of what disaster response might look like
01:28
in a hyper-connected world
01:31
where people have access
01:33
to mobile smart devices.
01:35
Because out of the urban devastation
01:38
in Port-au-Prince
01:40
came a torrent of SMS texts --
01:42
people crying for help,
01:45
beseeching us for assistance,
01:47
sharing data, offering support,
01:49
looking for their loved ones.
01:51
This was a situation
01:53
that traditional aid agencies had never before encountered.
01:55
We were in one of the poorest countries on the planet,
01:58
but 80 percent of the people
02:01
had mobile devices in their hands.
02:04
And we were unprepared for this,
02:06
and they were shaping the aid effort.
02:08
Outside Haiti also, things were looking different.
02:11
Tens of thousands of so-called digital volunteers
02:14
were scouring the Internet,
02:17
converting tweets
02:19
that had already been converted from texts
02:21
and putting these into open-source maps,
02:23
layering them with all sorts of important information --
02:25
people like Crisis Mappers and Open Street Map --
02:28
and putting these on the Web for everybody --
02:31
the media, the aid organizations and the communities themselves --
02:33
to participate in and to use.
02:36
Back in Haiti,
02:39
people were increasingly turning
02:41
to the medium of SMS.
02:43
People that were hungry and hurting
02:45
were signaling their distress,
02:47
were signaling their need for help.
02:49
On street sides all over Port-au-Prince,
02:52
entrepreneurs sprung up
02:55
offering mobile phone charging stations.
02:57
They understood more than we did
03:00
people's innate need
03:02
to be connected.
03:04
Never having been confronted
03:06
with this type of situation before,
03:08
we wanted to try and understand
03:10
how we could tap into this incredible resource,
03:12
how we could really leverage
03:15
this incredible use of mobile technology
03:17
and SMS technology.
03:19
We started talking with a local telecom provider called Voilà,
03:21
which is a subsidiary of Trilogy International.
03:25
We had basically three requirements.
03:29
We wanted to communicate
03:31
in a two-way form of communication.
03:33
We didn't want to shout; we needed to listen as well.
03:35
We wanted to be able to target
03:38
specific geographic communities.
03:40
We didn't need to talk to the whole country at the same time.
03:42
And we wanted it to be easy to use.
03:45
Out of this rubble of Haiti and from this devastation
03:48
came something that we call TERA --
03:51
the Trilogy Emergency Response Application --
03:53
which has been used to support the aid effort
03:56
ever since.
03:58
It has been used to help communities prepare for disasters.
04:00
It has been used to signal early warning
04:03
in advance of weather-related disasters.
04:06
It's used for public health awareness campaigns
04:08
such as the prevention of cholera.
04:11
And it is even used for sensitive issues
04:13
such as building awareness
04:16
around gender-based violence.
04:18
But does it work?
04:20
We have just published
04:23
an evaluation of this program,
04:25
and the evidence that is there for all to see
04:28
is quite remarkable.
04:31
Some 74 percent of people
04:34
received the data.
04:36
Those who were intended to receive the data,
04:38
74 percent of them received it.
04:40
96 percent of them
04:42
found it useful.
04:44
83 percent of them took action --
04:46
evidence that it is indeed empowering.
04:49
And 73 percent of them shared it.
04:51
The TERA system
04:55
was developed from Haiti
04:57
with support of engineers in the region.
04:59
It is a user-appropriate technology
05:02
that has been used for humanitarian good to great effect.
05:04
Technology is transformational.
05:07
Right across the developing world,
05:10
citizens and communities
05:12
are using technology
05:14
to enable them to bring about change, positive change,
05:16
in their own communities.
05:18
The grassroots has been strengthened
05:20
through the social power of sharing
05:22
and they are challenging the old models,
05:24
the old analog models
05:26
of control and command.
05:28
One illustration of the transformational power of technology
05:31
is in Kibera.
05:34
Kibera is one of Africa's largest slums.
05:36
It's on the outskirts of Nairobi,
05:38
the capital city of Kenya.
05:40
It's home to an unknown number of people --
05:42
some say between 250,000
05:44
and 1.2 million.
05:46
If you were to arrive in Nairobi today
05:48
and pick up a tourist map,
05:50
Kibera is represented
05:52
as a lush, green national park
05:54
devoid of human settlement.
05:56
Young people living in Kibera
05:58
in their community,
06:00
with simple handheld devices,
06:02
GPS handheld devices and SMS-enabled mobile phones,
06:04
have literally put themselves on the map.
06:08
They have collated crowd-sourced data
06:10
and rendered the invisible visible.
06:12
People like Josh and Steve
06:15
are continuing to layer information upon information,
06:18
real-time information, Tweet it and text it onto these maps
06:21
for all to use.
06:24
You can find out about the latest impromptu music session.
06:26
You can find out about the latest security incident.
06:29
You can find out about places of worship.
06:31
You can find out about the health centers.
06:33
You can feel the dynamism
06:35
of this living, breathing community.
06:37
They also have their own news network on YouTube
06:39
with 36,000 viewers at the moment.
06:42
They're showing us what can be done
06:45
with mobile, digital technologies.
06:48
They're showing that the magic of technology
06:50
can bring the invisible visible.
06:52
And they are giving a voice to themselves.
06:54
They are telling their own story,
06:56
bypassing the official narrative.
06:59
And we're seeing from all points on the globe similar stories.
07:01
In Mongolia for instance,
07:04
where 30 percent of the people are nomadic,
07:06
SMS information systems are being used
07:08
to track migration and weather patterns.
07:11
SMS is even used
07:13
to hold herder summits
07:15
from remote participation.
07:17
And if people are migrating
07:19
into urban, unfamiliar, concrete environments,
07:21
they can also be helped in anticipation
07:23
with social supporters ready and waiting for them
07:25
based on SMS knowledge.
07:28
In Nigeria,
07:30
open-source SMS tools
07:32
are being used by the Red Cross community workers
07:35
to gather information from the local community
07:38
in an attempt to better understand and mitigate
07:41
the prevalence of malaria.
07:43
My colleague, Jason Peat, who runs this program,
07:45
tells me it's 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper
07:48
than the traditional way of doing things.
07:51
And not only is it empowering to the communities,
07:54
but really importantly,
07:56
this information stays in the community
07:58
where it is needed to formulate long-term health polices.
08:00
We are on a planet
08:04
of seven billion people,
08:06
five billion mobile subscriptions.
08:09
By 2015,
08:12
there will be three billion smartphones in the world.
08:14
The U.N. broadband commission
08:19
has recently set targets
08:21
to help broadband access
08:23
in 50 percent of the Developing World,
08:25
compared to 20 percent today.
08:28
We are hurtling towards a hyper-connected world
08:30
where citizens from all cultures and all social strata
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will have access to smart, fast mobile devices.
08:36
People are understanding,
08:40
from Cairo to Oakland,
08:42
that there are new ways to come together,
08:44
there are new ways to mobilize,
08:46
there are new ways to influence.
08:48
A transformation is coming which needs to be understood
08:52
by the humanitarian structures and humanitarian models.
08:55
The collective voices of people
08:58
needs to be more integrated through new technologies
09:00
into the organizational strategies and plans of actions
09:03
and not just recycled
09:05
for fundraising or marketing.
09:07
We need to, for example, embrace
09:09
the big data,
09:11
the knowledge that is there from market leaders
09:13
who understand what it means
09:15
to use and leverage big data.
09:17
One idea that I'd like you to consider, for instance,
09:20
is to take a look at our IT departments.
09:23
They're normally backroom or basement hardware service providers,
09:26
but they need to be elevated to software strategists.
09:29
We need people in our organizations
09:32
who know what it's like to work with big data.
09:34
We need technology
09:36
as a core organizational principle.
09:38
We need technological strategists in the boardroom
09:40
who can ask and answer the question,
09:43
"What would Amazon or Google
09:45
do with all of this data?"
09:47
and convert it to humanitarian good.
09:49
The possibilities
09:53
that new digital technologies are bringing
09:55
can help humanitarian organizations,
09:57
not only ensure
09:59
that people's right to information is met,
10:01
or that they have their right to communicate,
10:03
but I think in the future,
10:06
humanitarian organizations will also have to anticipate
10:08
the right for people to access
10:11
critical communication technologies
10:13
in order to ensure
10:15
that their voices are heard,
10:17
that they're truly participating,
10:19
that they're truly empowered in the humanitarian world.
10:21
It has always been the elusive ideal
10:24
to ensure full participation of people affected by disasters
10:27
in the humanitarian effort.
10:30
We now have the tools. We now have the possibilities.
10:33
There are no more reasons not to do it.
10:36
I believe we need to bring the humanitarian world
10:40
from analog to digital.
10:43
Thank you very much.
10:45
(Applause)
10:47

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About the Speaker:

Paul Conneally - Aid worker
Paul Conneally is the public communications manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and a leader in using digital technologies for humanitarian aid.

Why you should listen

 

Paul Conneally has worked as a journalist since 1988 in the print and broadcast media, primarily in the area of news reportage and documentaries that focus on socio-economic development and international politics. He worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross for 11 years working in communications, cooperation and operations in regions from North Caucasus and Central Asia to the Balkans, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Israel & the Occupied Territories. He has also spent two and a half years as head of ICRC's donor reporting unit in Geneva.

Since August 2008, Paul oversees all aspects of public communication including audio visual production, advocacy initiatives, and online and social media for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

 

More profile about the speaker
Paul Conneally | Speaker | TED.com