Tsunami: 10 years hence

Technology does not feel. It does not bleed.

Its very insensitivity to trauma can be its strength – the tireless information sharing frameworks Info Share created knew no time of day and didn’t clamour for rest. On the other hand, because it is value neutral, technology lends itself to abuse. It cannot by itself create relief processes. No matter how suave and sophisticated the technology, our experience is that it will not be sustainable if it does not recognise the cultural context within which it is used. As such, the use of technology in the tsunami response has wider implications for the design and application of disaster response and management programmes which in turn can influence many programmes specifically designed for humanitarian work.

Ten years ago, I set up one Sri Lanka’s first networks for disaster aid and relief, in the wake of the tsunami, that functioned online, using Groove Virtual Office. Groove was already in use in a multi-stakeholder peace negotiations process support network – the tsunami saw it being transformed, almost overnight, into a disaster relief platform.

At its peak, the Groove spaces created for tsunami relief had over a thousand active participants, ranging from those in the President’s office in Colombo to local and international aid agencies.

The experience of setting up one of, if not the first digital network in Sri Lanka to support relief and aid work as well as situational awareness (as a central repository of information and updates around the post-disaster scenario, at a time when not a single other platform taken for granted today was even thought of) was a humbling one. I remember my Gateway laptop being completely overwhelmed by the data transfers over Groove, which got unblocked only after I went to the company’s HQ in Boston around a week after the tsunami hit, in what was a pre-arranged meeting that turned out to be, ironically, well-timed.

When the hectic pace of updates settled down, in March 2005 I wrote some observations around the use of ICTs in the tsunami response. It was the first such document from Sri Lanka, critically reflecting on the use of web and Internet platforms and apps (mobile apps and services didn’t extend beyond SMS at the time) for relief and aid work.

Today, in collaboration with The Picture Press, I published on Groundviews a feature story looking at the tsunami, ten years after it hit our shores. A significant change in technology since the 2004 tsunami has been the advent of mobile telephony, which I highlighted at a keynote address at the ISCRAM Asia Conference 2014 held in Sri Lanka from 20 – 21 June 2014. My keynote gave specific ideas around how mobile phones and mobile phone users could be leveraged for disaster relief, aid and resilience.

The Picture Press feature on Groundviews also looks at technology, both in how much has changed for the better and also how much remains, tragically, the same, putting many at continued risk of losing their lives and livelihoods.

Acknowledging the growth of mobile telephony in the country, the tsunami feature is hosted on Microsoft’s Sway platform – just recently opened up to public access at the time of writing this. It is a wonderful platform for the publication of content accessible over any smartphone, tablet or desktop browser. Completely responsive and beautifully rendered on screen, the content comes alive on Sway allowing for the distribution of this kind of compelling photo essay to as wide an audience as possible.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 12.18.10 PM

It is the first time in Sri Lanka Microsoft’s Sway is being used in the public domain, and initial feedback from readers suggests they deeply appreciate the compelling photography and research by The Picture Press as well as its presentation.

Ten years ago, in my reflections around the use of ICTs for the tsunami response, I noted,

The future of effective disaster response architectures is in the palm of your hand.

That future is already here, but to paraphrase William Gibson, is still unevenly distributed. And that’s our challenge for the next ten years – to make sure what we already have access to in form of mobile and web based technologies are more strategically and in a sustainable manner leveraged to help communities help themselves responding to, at risk, or in the wake of a disaster.

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