Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have opened up new ways of exchanging information. Look at the role they have played in promoting and spreading the “Jasmine Revolution” in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and the way they have fundamentally changed the way information about natural disasters is shared.
Research into the amount of information available online and the number of searches immediately following disasters like Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan and the Haiti earthquake, and my own observations on these phenomena since the recent massive earthquake in Japan, show that interest tends to peak within the first 72 hours and then gradually tails off. If you were to draw a graph of the amount of information and the instances of searches, it would be decidedly asymmetrical.
Clearly, during the initial spike in search requests governments should act quickly to reduce public anxiety, providing information on disaster prevention and rescue operations.
Is it important for the government to make information available online? Of course it is. The government controls resources such as emergency supplies and information about the nearest assembly points. Members of the public cannot reconnect water or electricity supplies, nor can they monitor the handling of a nuclear accident. If the government does not supply this kind of information, the public remains largely in the dark.
The lesson the government learned from Typhoon Morakot was that it lacked a viable network for distributing information online. Important information needed to be given out either when responding to 119 calls or through traditional media. When Morakot was ravaging the south, the government’s disaster response system relied on ad hoc teams organized by the Association of Digital Culture Taiwan to tell the public what to do. The members of these teams staffed local emergency response centers and established make-shift teams, with volunteers making the necessary information available to the response centers through various social networking tools.
The response to Morakot did produce some interesting findings, and is to be studied in depth by the APEC Telecommunications and Information Working Group. In this sense, it can be seen as Taiwan’s own unique contribution to the improvement of disaster relief work.
However, the information network established during Morakot was only a temporary measure. Failing to grasp its importance, the government has yet to establish a more permanent system to make information available in the event of a natural disaster. It is apparently banking on another non-governmental organization (NGO) coming to its aid when the next disaster strikes.
This is simply not good enough, but no-one in any of the NGOs is willing to stand up to the government and point out what its responsibilities are. There is consequently no mechanism in place to facilitate the effective dissemination of information come the next disaster in Taiwan.
Previous premiers have been keen to procure systems and equipment, without really understanding which frameworks need to be set up first, or what software is required. Neither do they ask about why particular equipment is required, or what good it will do in a disaster. It is one thing to buy the latest in information systems, but we also need the staff to input the information. What is most lacking at present is trained personnel able to deal with such information. Some government departments seem to believe this can all be done by volunteers. Where exactly these volunteers are supposed to come from and how they are to coordinate their work is a mystery.
The other thing is that these disaster response systems are generally one-way only, rarely allowing the public to make enquiries. During Morakot, netizens complained that the disaster response was ineffectual, but it did enable fire crews, the army, air crews and community leaders to accomplish a great deal.
Public anger was fueled by the inability of officials to respond to queries during the actual disaster. However, to have done so effectively would have required considerable resources.
Major disasters often bring out the charitable side of people, who want to get involved in some way, but this can result in deadly bottlenecks, preventing information passing back and forth. One widely broadcast example during the floods caused by Morakot was a call for help sent out by a priest in Pingtung County’s Wutai Township (霧台). His message got through, and help arrived, but nothing was done to update people on the situation, and so his SOS message was still out there in cyberspace.
The priest had done the right thing in calling for help. The problem was that the government lacked the resources to keep people informed about the latest developments, and tell them that his problem had already been dealt with.
It is the huge volume of this kind of obsolete and inaccurate information that tends to clog up response and administrative systems during disasters.
NGOs and academic institutions have written many reports on the use of the Internet during Morakot and how things were handled during the Haiti earthquake, but these tend to just get filed away. The response to natural disasters has little to do with politics; it is neither a blue nor a green issue. Both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) central government and pan-green local governments are legitimate targets for criticism in their handling of major natural disasters.
It is far better for the public to keep haranguing the government and even the media, than for them to simply applaud the things that were done well. Have we learned anything from these disasters, or have all of the sacrifices made by countless individuals during Morakot and the valuable experience gained simply gone to waste?
Shyu Ting-yao is chair of the Association of Digital Culture Taiwan.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER
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