Emergency Information Service (EIS) by Thomson Reuters Foundation

The Thomson Reuters Foundation adds another acronym to the disaster response alphabet soup via its newly launched Emergency Information Service (EIS). As its press release notes,

Developed to respond to major natural disasters around the world, the new EIS will deploy expert Action-Units of journalists to scenes of major catastrophe where they will seek out, collate and disseminate life-saving information to disaster-struck populations, filling a critical gap in the chain of crisis information.

EIS Action-Units will be staffed by specialist humanitarian-trained Reuters journalists. Upon alert of a major natural disaster, the EIS Action-Units will travel to the affected area and use the most appropriate means of communication – particularly SMS text messages – to reach local populations, aid agencies and local-language media. Communities affected by disasters often find themselves cut off from information and aid. A key aim of the EIS is to ensure those affected are not seen merely as victims but as “first responders” who can help shape and manage the disaster recovery process through their own local knowledge and expertise.

Speaking at the launch, Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said: “In times of major natural catastrophes, information itself is aid, as crucial as shelter or blankets. Working with key partners such as the Red Cross, the EIS will have teams in the field within hours of a natural disaster striking. The EIS Action-Units will provide reliable, actionable information to help empower survivors to be architects of their own recovery.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation has developed groundbreaking technology to allow the EIS team and other groups to assimilate and process multiple information streams in an emergency. The tools let the EIS Action-Units generate information services for dissemination in local languages via SMS, email and web page. When all communications are down, the EIS will turn to low-tech means such as leaflets, community noticeboards and even megaphones.

The reason I’m interested in this initiative is because it is the first I know of that combines citizen journalism with the resources of a major international wire news agency to better equip victims of disasters to access information vital to aid and recovery.

The press release however is rather convoluted. Inter alia, it is not clear what EIS really is, what technologies are at play or how the EIS teams will be constituted and deployed. Further, on the one hand, the press release emphasises that EIS will “empower survivors to be architects of their own recovery.” On the other hand, the text notes that EIS will “seek out, collate and disseminate life-saving information to disaster-struck populations”. The thrust of the first points suggests that EIS is geared more towards the provisioning of tools and services for citizens to produce their own content, and access information on aid and relief. The emphasis of the second point seems to suggest that EIS is more of an information dissemination platform. Is EIS both? A question if EIS is to provide victims with the tools and resources they can use to produce and publish their own narratives is how the Thomson Reuters Foundation collaborates with the UN and other agencies, such as Telecoms sans Frontiers, in the provisioning of equipments, tools and services so as to avoid duplication and resource overlap.

Whereas the potential of EIS to empower those traditionally considered victims without agency after a disaster to produce and disseminate their own narratives is to be welcomed, much more needs to be made public about EIS before we can determine if this is mere gimmickry or an initiative more meaningful and worth supporting.

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