Author of Tech in Emergencies report answers your questions

Q&A with Diane Coyle, co-author of the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation report New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts.

What key advantages does use of social media and new technologies bring in disasters?

New technologies offer the potential to improve the response to an emergency or conflict, and make humanitarian efforts more effective. The key point about the latest communication technologies and social media is that they can enhance the capabilities of the people directly affected. Information is a powerful tool and for vulnerable people might be the only tool they can use effectively.

The report details use of SMS, satellite, radio and mapping as some examples of new technologies being used in emergencies. How do you see the use of technologies in emergencies evolving in the years ahead?

The report gives a range of examples, and there are many others we didn’t have space to include – some people have commented on our work giving further examples, such as the emergency response web technologies developed by, live phonecasting from, open source cell alert software from Predicting the future path of these technologies with any precision is impossible as this will depend on a wide range of factors. But it’s safe to say that there is tremendous momentum in the implementation of new technologies in the context of conflicts and emergencies. If I had to single out just one, I’d look to mobile web access and social media in combination as one whose use will increase greatly in the years ahead.

How best can communities interested in this space share information about what they are doing – everything from solutions they are using to best practices and lessons learned?

This is a good question because there is a lot of innovation and activity, and it’s already a challenge to capture everything that’s under way. The use of information and communication should be an important subject for discussion at any of the existing occasions on which humanitarian agencies meet and co-ordinate. However, social networking itself probably offers the most effective way to share information. It can connect not only those who already speak to each other but also new voices, including those from vulnerable populations. This opportunity for humanitarian agencies to connect directly with people from the populations they aim to help is really exciting – and perhaps a bit unsettling as well.

What tools exist for aid agencies that want to be more proactive about how integrating new technologies into how they prepare for, respond to and rebuild after disasters?

When there is such an array of new ideas and technologies, it will be essential to experiment and share experiences. There’s a role for the international community – and for the UNF/VF Technology partnership  – in helping to capture information and share best practice. Aid agencies can perhaps learn from some of the examples we set out in the report, depending on which seem most relevant to their own activities. Finally, the example we give in the report of TSF’s training of other agencies and the new knowledge-sharing portal will be a terrific tool for other agencies.