Long before the recent devastating flooding in Sri Lanka, I have been interested in how media, including new media able to sustain an empathetic interest over the long-term on complex humanitarian emergencies. However multi-faceted and in-depth it may appear to be at first, local and international media approach disasters as episodes, concentrating coverage when it is at its peak, moving on after relief and aid work has stabilised, returning only for yearly anniversaries through critiques and reports on the divide between how things were done, and how they should have been done.
One of the most fascinating articles in this regard appeared in Wired last year. How Twitter + Dopamine = Better Humans by Scott Brown is worth reading in full, and the essential thesis is that altruism – i.e. donating money for aid – releases a chemical in our brains called dopamine that for a short time, makes us feel good. The effects don’t last, and over time, the point is that we are less and less interested in supporting aid work. This is especially true in a country where the cost of living is still high, and will possibly increase quite dramatically over the coming months given the devastation to crops and farmland on account of the floods.
I recalled this article as I penned a missive to a friend down in Sri Lanka for a rapid assessment of how media, including new media, can help the flood affected areas in the East of Sri Lanka. The backdrop to the conversation was the first ever mobile phone / SMS based micro-aid payment system in Sri Lanka initiated by Dialog Axiata. On the 14th of this month, every Dialog Axiata subscriber got the following SMS,
“Type “FLOOD” & send to 770 to donate Rs. 10 to Flood relief. Dialog will match donation 1:1 (addtnl Rs. 10). Relief will be distributed by SL Army. Taxes Apply”
It is not clear how much each donation will be taxed, and in a sense, unfortunate that this is the case. The American Red Cross after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 received a record number of donations through Americans who donated through their mobiles, and none of its was taxed. This minor quibble aside, it was extremely progressive to see a mobile phone company leverage its subscriber base to finance urgent relief work. What is not known is how many actually chose to donate via this service. As I told my friend,
“I’m sure Dialog itself may come out with numbers. They are matching each SLR 10 donation with SLR 10 of their own. With a subscriber base of over 7 million, that’s 140 million if everyone sends just one text, a significant amount, and I think, the right donation / price point for even the bottom of the pyramid to send in an SMS. Thing is though that some were put off by the fact that it would be the Army who delivered the aid, but I expect this to be a few. I also don’t know of similar initiatives by Mobitel, which I thought would have been the way to go given govt ownership and another substantial user base. Must check up on this. Sarvodaya used new media (Tweets / FB) to a great degree to mobilise aid in addition to of course their website. Our own Google Map has now been viewed upwards of 20,000 times, possible 23,000 times if you include those who have viewed in in-line on the site. This is to my knowledge the largest number of eyeballs a map on SL has generated, and I’ve created the others in the past through CMEV. Our coverage of the floods has been keenly followed by local and international media, and I know that some of the first photos of the flooding came from a Facebook account’s photo page. So there’s an interesting new media dimension to this in information delivery to urban consumers and a younger demographic through social and new media, which includes the diaspora as well. Our flood related tweets were routinely retweeted by diasporic groups and individuals, as well as by other aid and relief organisations. Hard, if not downright impossible to put down a monetary value for the information thus created and disseminated, but one hopes that greater awareness releases enough dopamine in the brain to channel much needed aid?”
The Google Map I refer to was created and curated by Nigel Nugawela, my co-editor on Groundviews. It was viewed over 3,000 times in less than 24 hours after its was first published. At the time of writing this, it has been viewed over 22,000 times. I was the first in Sri Lanka to leverage the power of visualisation through Google Maps to bear witness to election violence, which to date remains the only instances of election monitoring that leverages online mapping. Though each of the maps I created were viewed by thousands, the map of the flooding was able to generate more views in under two days. Clearly then, there was interest locally and globally in the floods. Journalists, individuals in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora as well as groups like CrisisMappers retweeted our updates on the map. Some of the first photos of the ground conditions were posted on Facebook and republished on Groundviews.
There is no doubt that the map alone, and the new media coverage created more awareness about the ground conditions. What needs further study is whether this actually resulted in more funding than usual and in-kind donations for relief work over the past two weeks, and linked to this, how long new media coverage will continue to generate interest in donations, given that the livelihood and infrastructure recovery and reconstruction in the areas worst affected will take months. Already, views on our Google Map are slowing down. Already tweets and updates on the flooding situation are outnumbered by the characteristic banality of the blogosphere.
This, to come full circle, is what I am interested in studying further and what Haiti, a year hence, also affords valuable perspectives on. Generating stories from those affected, giving them voice and agency through media created by them, for them, taking the leitmotifs of this community media and amplifying them in national media, focussing on human interest stories, demonstrating how relief work can and does often help communities by concentrating on stories of individuals, reminded how people can aid these individuals and thereby the larger community, visualising complexity, cross-translation of content (the East does not operate in English), treating the information needs of flood affected communities as an extension of the information needs of a war affected population and mainstreaming media development post-floods into larger, more systemic funding to strengthen the resilience of these communities, mapping vulnerabilities, scrutinising aid delivery and performance of the international community, local NGOs as well as Government, creating simple SMS based tools to facilitate early warning and situational awareness amongst trained volunteers in the most vulnerable communities, embracing in a more systemic way the potential of new media tools and platforms to warn and coordinate are just some of the ways new media and ICTs can help over the long-term.
Perhaps we cannot cheat chemistry. Dopamine will always be a quick fix, but it’s up to the media – both local and international – to prolong its effects. Changing global climate conditions will mean disasters like this are more frequent, and each time, more devastating. New media can and does help, but good, critical thinking and adequate funding to support the design, development and deployment of ICTs in this regard remain equally elusive.