How Digital Humanitarians Save Lives

This week, I want to focus on the positive side of social media; that is, how social media saves lives, specifically during natural disasters.

The most fascinating example is the story of Patrick Meier, a pioneer for crisis mapping:

During the 2010 Haitian earthquake disaster, Meier, with the help of 100 student volunteers, developed a crisis mapping system, despite limited data from Google Maps for many locations in Haiti, and created a free hotline for the public to send and receive alerts for buried or trapped victims, and people in critical need of clean drinking water or medical support.

The entire project began within the first week of the disaster at Fletcher School (Tuffts University) in a dormitory living room:

Volunteers at The Fletcher School in a living room at Blakeley Hall. Credit: Carol Waters.
Volunteers at The Fletcher School in a living room at Blakeley Hall. Credit: Carol Waters.

The team immediately reached out to a Haitian telecommunications company, Digicel, who created a toll-free SMS number for the public to send in tips, which would then be added to the crisis map along with the nature of the alert:

Close up of the Haiti Map. Each number represents the individual number of reports within the area. Users could zoom in further to see the individual reports. Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP) and Caption by Patrick Meier.
Close up of the Haiti Map. Each number represents the individual number of reports within the area. Users could zoom in further to see the individual reports. Credit: Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP) and Caption by Patrick Meier.

Since most of the information was sent in Haitian Creole, a website was set up so that global volunteers could translate tens of thousands of texts, pinpointing the most relevant and urgent ones.

Meier’s system aids in disaster relief by involving people from all over the world. This is the benefit of social media: volunteers can now provide their specialized skills over the web to help victims in other countries. The crisis map also helps agencies work in a swift and efficient manner by providing and verifying information instantaneously. Aside from this new advance, social media provides the means for users to communicate with their friends and family members in the midst of a crisis. Although this new service is still in development, crisis mapping is a social media pioneer in humanitarian aid to look forward to in our ever-changing and unpredictable world.

Sources/further reading:

Patrick Meier, “How Crisis Mapping Saved Lives in Haiti”

maps.micromappers.org

http://clickers.micromappers.org

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Does Radio Encryption Undermine Journalism?

Image credit: Hackwhiz

The argument that “Print is Dead” keeps growing. When I first entered the Bachelor of Communication Studies I had my heart set on Journalism. Yet after spending a day at the Edmonton Journal with the crime bureau chief and a photojournalist, I heard many disturbing stories: financial cutbacks, high stress situations (which, in one unfortunate case, ultimately led to the early death of our photographer’s friend at the age of 35), and the encryption of radio transmissions.

My focus of this post is the information I received about the introduction of encrypted radio transmissions used by police in Toronto, which are in preparation to hit Edmonton. Throughout my visit, we listened to the EMS, EPS, and EFD radio transmissions, which journalists use as leads to create their stories. Journalists are often the first on the scene. Police encounter many calls that they have to attend to as an order of priority, fire departments are fast and efficient when preparing for the scene, but neither are as fast as a journalist with a camera and an available car. These transmissions are what journalists rely on; they are what allow them to be (at most times) the first at the scene.

But how can journalism survive without the vital tips produced by radio transmissions from police, fire, and ambulance services within our city? How will this change journalists’ stories if they are the last on the scene, after the mess has been cleaned up, and all of the information is held until a formal public address? If the only information we receive is from officials, rather than from the general public during the scene of the crime or accident, is this true journalism? Are we getting the real story once encryption is introduced?

I ask: is encryption a good or bad thing in the world of journalism? The answer may be obvious, but I also offer the opposing argument: does it safeguard our police force? Can we strike a balance between civil service and journalistic integrity?

Sources:

Radiocommunication Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. R-2)

Police radio to go silent as Toronto cops move toward encrypted communications

Scanner silence: Nova Scotia RCMP switching to digital encryption

RADIO SILENCE: Kamloops RCMP switching to encrypted radios

Prince George RCMP switch to digitally encrypted police radio system