This blog was written by Olivia Crane, who graduated from the Master of Public Health (MPH) programme at ScHARR in 2016. Read more about her dissertation through the ScHARR Student e-journal, and a previous blog post.

In recent decades, and over the last ten years in particular, the global community has changed the way it experiences and responds to disasters. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as social media, mapping systems, and image sharing sites have created wormholes through which we can watch – clearly and in real-time, often with the safety of distance – as earthquakes hit, fires spread, or waters rise in any part of the world.

The potential that ICTs provide in facilitating disaster management is huge, and has begun to be realised in the way they are used for fundraising, finding missing people, and to strengthen feelings of solidarity between dispersed communities. But perhaps it is too easy, when observing from a distance, to assume that ICTs are channelling everyone’s voices equally and that there are no silent mouths.

What about when we look more closely and focus on people and communities directly hit by disasters, particularly in developing countries? Who is really using ICTs and what are they using them for? Does experiencing a natural disaster change this behaviour? How are those involved in disaster management tapping into this resource?

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Our recent research considered some of these questions. Starting in rural central Nepal where a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and multiple devastating aftershocks struck in 2015 killing almost 9,000 people, we invited people to tell us about their experiences of using ICTs to address their own or others’ health needs during and after the earthquakes. We talked to a huge range of people: from national and local government officials, to the staff of international NGOs, to journalists, to health workers, to the poorest people in some of the most-affected communities. We found that all of these groups used ICTs during and after the earthquake – but they used different technologies for different reasons and in different ways.

Access to physical technologies and an internet connection to use them were common barriers, as were capability – either to read English, the predominant internet-language, or to read at all. In some cases an inability to read/write Nepali was the barrier, as many volunteers arrived from abroad.

In rural areas, mobile phones were considered a lifeline for many, particularly to contact family members who had migrated to Kathmandu or overseas for work. When mobile networks were down, radio stations were a point of contact for the dispersed workers to find out about the impact of the disaster on the family members they had left at home.

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Social media was more commonly mentioned in urban areas, where many volunteers used Facebook and other platforms for networking and coordinating emergency help, acting as mouthpieces for rural communities’ needs. The enormous self-organization of volunteers was highly dependent upon social media. Students and young people made videos to bring in funds, posted pictures of damage online for verification, and collected materials to take to affected areas themselves. Older forms of media often fulfilled the same function – a radio station broadcasted incoming calls requesting help so that emergency services could find out what was needed and deliver it more quickly to the right place.

The danger of social media for spreading rumours and false reports is often seen as a problem. We did find evidence of this, and of an occasional lack of respect for the enormous grief experienced during such times of trauma. But most people we spoke to focused on the benefits of using ICTs, rather than such downsides.

The formal health system, made up of hospitals, health agencies, and government bodies, generally relied on more traditional methods of contact in their management of the disaster – including face to face meetings, phone calls, and email. Although strong personal networks meant that key individuals could reach each other quickly in the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, there appeared to be a missed opportunity to make use of the rich and sometimes validated information gathered, posted, and checked by informal responders in Nepal and volunteers around the world. Examples of these are Facebook’s Safety Check feature; a Rapid Response Team which started a ‘text for information’ service; a QuakeMap deployed by Kathmandu Living Labs; as well as social media hashtags to collate photos of damaged areas.

Overall, the findings of our study indicate that, although ICTs are facilitating resilience of individuals in the face of a disaster, there is some way to go for this to be applied to the health system as a whole. The complex problems of access and capability remain major barriers to ICT use in Nepal, particularly in rural areas, as is also the case in other low-income countries. However, there is great potential for ICTs to give people voice, and to develop community intelligence for the benefit of affected groups as well as for the information of decision makers within the formal response. There is scope for increased connectedness and collaboration between the formal and informal responses to disasters, which remain fairly separate although they have the same overarching goal of saving lives and livelihoods. Innovative use of ICTs could help bridge that gap in future.

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