We didn’t know what the word “tsunami” meant when it hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. But our ignorance extended far beyond meteorological phenomena — ten years ago, lives were lost because information and communications technologies around early warning and response were non-existent. Officials from the government’s meteorology department, who didn’t realize a tsunami was entirely unrelated to atmospheric conditions, tried to address mass panic over radio and TV saying the skies would be clear. With no early warning in place, no training on what to do, where to go, or where to turn for updates, a disaster occurred that could have been largely prevented. The tsunami was a wake-up call around how desperately countries impacted by the tragedy needed more resilient and effective mechanisms around disaster warning.
Since 2004, despite vast technological advancements in ‘last-mile’ alerting–aimed at providing communities with a system to receive hazard information for early warning–common alerting protocols, and apps on smartphones to by-the-minute updates over social media, complex challenges remain. Policy-making around more efficient and effective disaster response, preparedness, and recovery can become mired in bureaucracy. Sharing knowledge in a timely and effective manner often remains hostage to officials and senior leadership that believe hoarding information is more important than releasing it to other agencies, humanitarian actors, and a broader public.
Even with a shared goal of saving lives, information flow can be slow or even become trapped across various agencies and departments. Early-warning and disaster-response platforms have become increasingly successful in generating, disseminating, analyzing, and visualizing critical information. At the same time, they have become less capable of seamlessly sharing information with other systems, standards, and platforms used by others for the same relief operations. At the time of the tsunami, it was a lack of information and awareness that killed so many. Ten years hence, it is information scatter, data lock-in, and the lack of coherent governance around information dissemination that continues to impede the effective and efficient response to emergencies.
Beyond natural disasters, peacebuilding praxis has also seen unprecedented growth in the use of technology for positive, constructive action — in just over a decade — from early warning and response to post-war recovery and rebuilding. A plethora of examples can be found around the world, from simple mobile apps (e.g. what is already used in Afghanistan around the use of mobile phones in peacebuilding) and text messaging (e.g. PeaceTXT) to the use of big data for peacebuilding. Some governments now have official Twitter hashtags for crises, allowing users to easily find information in emergencies. And yet without, for example, investments around media literacy within fragile societies or with a repressive polity, technology growth also creates the space for rumour and propaganda to exacerbate violence. An ill-timed or malicious SMS can transmit violence and violent responses almost instantaneously across vast distances in the way that, at the start of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, for instance, hateful and incendiary messages were transmitted via radio.
Most policymakers now grasp the positive potential of technology, but there are less positive, more hurtful applications as well. The central challenge today, shared by the UN, civil society, governments, Bretton Woods institutions and others, is to outsmart technologies that help promote hate, hurt and harm and instead, imagine and promote technological content and initiatives to counter radicalization and build resilience. From ISIS in Iraq to the promotion of hate speech in Sri Lanka by militant monks, social media, the Internet, and mobile apps are also used to fan violence. Success in countering this online incitement language depends on many factors; key among them are governance and leadership, innovations in technology (e.g. mesh networking to serve rural communities), and strategic investments in content generation to counter hate (e.g. Umati).
The progress, potential, and new challenges of technology provoke a simple question of us: we all often say technology saves lives, but how far and much are we willing to really invest to make sure it really does?