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Editorial

For the greater good

/ 01:02 AM November 16, 2014

With “Yolanda” in 2013 and, earlier, “Ondoy,” “Sendong,” “Pablo” and other frightening storms, disaster preparedness is now an indispensable part of the Philippine handbook of survival. And with climate change an official reality, with world powers America and China agreeing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, disaster preparedness now ranks among the top priorities of any nation, big or small.

There is something unique in our situation, the Philippines being among the most avid adaptors of personal communications technology. With the explosion of social media, Filipinos have flocked to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, earning for the country the sobriquet “social networking capital” of the world. Instead of mere trendy association, we can use this distinction for the good.

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And the research paper coauthored by Edson Tandoc—a former Inquirer reporter and now a journalism researcher/professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University—on the need to include social media in disaster preparedness plans pushes the right buttons. In the paper, coauthors Tandoc and Bruno Takahashi recall the case of 20-year-old “Joanna,” who, the day after Yolanda devastated Tacloban City, walked for an hour for the chance to use Facebook. There was no electricity and no signal but through the help of telcos, the Department of Social Welfare and Development was able to set up temporary Internet service in front of City Hall. Joanna went on Facebook to let her loved ones know she was safe. Hundreds of others did the same, managing to ease their families’ anguish.

There are earlier examples of Filipinos using social media to come to the aid of loved ones, friends and strangers caught in a disaster. After Ondoy devastated Metro Manila and outlying provinces on Sept. 26, 2009, volunteers were mobilized to provide aid and comfort to the stricken. After the Oct. 15, 2013, earthquake in Bohol, Facebook accounts Oplan Bangon Bohol and #Bangon SugBohol were instrumental in moving relief goods to those who badly needed them. The aftermath of Yolanda saw the particular efficiency of using social media: for just a few examples, Twitter was used to gather relief goods as well as organize volunteers, Facebook group Operation Salubong Villamor Airbase assisted survivors from the Visayas when they touched down in Manila, and Google’s Person Finder did exactly what its name announced.

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It’s no longer a point of argument. Allen Clark, a senior consultant at Hawaii’s Pacific Disaster Center, told the Inquirer’s Cynthia Balana: “[From what] you saw in Haiti, in Japan [and] in the Philippines, social media are becoming more and more a critical component of influencing policy and causing action… One of the things we found out in getting aid into an area is understanding the accessibility of that area, and only the people on the ground or the ‘citizen journalists’ have that information immediately.” The Associated Press reported that Facebook has devised a tool called “Safety Check” that, in the event of a natural disaster, will allow the more than one billion users to inform their loved ones that they are safe—exactly what Joanna was able to do in Tacloban.

It would be interesting to find out the steps that frontline government agencies—the DSWD, say, and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, the Department of Transportation and Communications, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the Department of Health, the local government units, etc.—have taken and are taking to ensure that this powerful tool would be harnessed effectively in preparing for disasters, whether foreseen or unforeseen. “What happened during [Yolanda] demonstrates how media users quickly learn to adopt technologies to suit their peculiar needs during a communication network paralysis,” Tandoc said. “Educating residents about the value of social media channels will make social media use during disasters more efficient.”

Technology and nature have long been at odds with each other, but the use of new technology to mitigate the effects of nature’s fury in its many forms is surely a positive way to even things up. It’s time to use our knack for online tools for the greater good, and with responsibility. In the dizzying age of social media, it’s possible to think when we click.

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TAGS: disasters, Editorial, Edson Tandoc, IT, opinion, social media, Technology
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