Twitter for crisis and disaster relief

By Mahima Kaul
Thursday, 28 July 2016

During times of crisis and emergencies, Twitter’s live, open and public features have been leveraged by NGOs, citizens, government agencies and the media to share and exchange information. This has lead to unprecedented collaboration by NGOs, citizens, government agencies and the media on the platform.

In South Asia, the usefulness of Twitter during disaster relief came to light during the Kashmir floods of 2014, as citizen groups organized themselves entirely on Twitter to help agencies on the ground. This effort was replicated in 2015 when Chennai was hit with a flood that lasted several weeks.

In July 2016, @TwitterIndia worked with NGOs, other private sector and citizen participants to work towards a focused strategy for disaster relief operations. Our next steps have included onboarding relief agencies on Twitter to amplify their message, plan capacity-building workshops for NGOs, and increase implementation of best practices.

In this context, we hosted one of the first capacity-building workshops, ‘Humanitarian and Disaster Relief’ last week in partnership with @OxfamIndia. @OxfamIndia is an international humanitarian NGO, who also provides humanitarian assistance during crises and helps people be better prepared for disasters.

This #TweetToTransform workshop reinforced that integrating Twitter into humanitarian response work has transformed the scale and speed at which groups have been responding to these incidents. The goal of this workshop was to demonstrate how different groups — including @OxfamIndia, citizen groups, government — have used Twitter during disasters and to share best practices. This would enable the attendees to understand how to better integrate and use Twitter as a communication tool during crisis and disasters.

In the audience were both international and Indian NGOs involved in humanitarian relief work in India. India’s National Disaster Management Authority (@ndmaindia) and National Disaster Response Force (@NDRFHQ) and representatives from a few State Disaster Management Authority’s were also present at the workshop.

@nishaagrawal007, CEO, @OxfamIndia welcomed the participants, outlining the program for the day and talking about Oxfam’s work around the world.

We opened the workshop with an introduction to ‘Twitter for Disaster & Humanitarian Response’ and shared disaster relief best practises on Twitter, using Twitter tools to encourage authenticity, speed, and amplification of the message.

@Tamseel_h, Digital Consultant, @OxfamIndia described how the NGO gets “all hands on deck” during times of crisis, and using Twitter to amplify the message has made that even easier. He also described how @OxfamIndia has proactively captured their learnings about using Twitter over the past two years in their humanitarian toolkit, calling it the ‘simplest tool’ they can use to get organic traction. Using Twitter allowed them to immediately broadcast stories from the ground — often from remote areas — helping build their credibility. They also noted that influencers and celebrities tend to work with them during periods of crisis. Using Twitter for public communication has led them to adopt certain guidelines during disasters — move quickly, be prepared, be consistent, and be responsive to those who Tweet at you for information. In retrospect, @OxfamIndia felt that using Twitter helped improve their efficiency on the ground by 40%.

@ndmaindia, the National Disaster Management Authority, spearheads an integrated approach to disaster management for the Government of India. Member @KamalKishore_IN, explained how they are now using Twitter to receive reports of damage from the field, and crowdsource the data to get sophisticated insights into what is happening in a region. Often the scale of events is so big, plotting data from Twitter helps to prioritize areas most affected. Twitter also helps the government communicate to the people affected what relief is available to them and where they can go to receive it.

He also went on to highlight some of the challenges of using social media during disasters, including tweaking your strategy in real time as ‘the disaster you planned for is not the disaster that happens.’ Using the right #hashtags was emphasised as part of a ‘good Twitter strategy.’ Devising ways to deal with misinformation and rumours was also raised as a challenge to be addressed by the disaster relief community.

@vmoorthynow described the journey of @IncrisisRelief, a Twitter-based ‘ecosystem of citizens’ which actively participated and led efforts by coordinating rescue and relief operations between agencies during the Kashmir floods in 2014, Nepal earthquake in 2015 and the Chennai Floods of 2015. Stressing the importance of ‘disaster citizenship’, the presentation focused on transforming public goodwill into positive action. Matching offers of help made by citizens and NGOs with the needs expressed by the agencies on the ground has been the central theme behind @IncrisisRelief. She shared her learnings about communication during disasters — be specific about what you are asking people to do/donate in your “Call to Action” Tweets; use media cards to complement the 140 characters of a single Tweet; don’t just share problems on Twitter but update people about when and how they are solved, and finally, publicly recognize the work your partners are doing, so you can grow the network.

Finally, two popular crowdsourcing platforms, @BitGiving (CEO @anand_ishita) and @Ketto (Head, North India Ops, Nikita Sharma) presented their learnings on how NGOs use their platforms to fundraise during a disaster. They also showed the group innovative examples on how to keep the momentum going after the first ten days of the crisis, when public interest in donating is at its peak. They also urged NGOs to be quite clear about what they are fundraising for; who and how will people be positively impacted in the days to come. Both also stressed that fundraising and collection of relief materials need not be done by the NGO alone, and highlighted how their platforms have allowed fundraising to become distributed so that more networks can be tapped into; “the power of ten”.

The workshop concluded on a high note, with the 60 participants energized and eager to plan their Twitter strategies to be prepared for communication during disasters. Next steps, including using Twitter Lists to map stakeholders and organising more workshops on a regional level, were discussed.

Watch the complete workshop on Periscope!