Disaster Management in the Digital Age: The Case of Latin America
by Patricia Bittner June 2003

There is no doubt that a digital divide exists between developed and developing countries. In Europe, North America and other parts of the ‘developed’ world, the Internet has become a routine part of life. In developed countries in particular, people are barraged by so much information from so many sources that they suffer from information overload.

The other side of the digital divide looks quite different. Imagine, for instance, the ministry of health of a Latin American country. Often there is a low computer-to-employee ratio, and even access to a personal computer does not guarantee access to the World Wide Web or email as many computers are not connected to the Internet. In addition, phonelines are difficult to obtain, expensive to use and bandwidth is low. Talking to developing countries about information overload is like talking about the risk of obesity in famine. Developing countries are hungry for information. The Internet can help to meet this need, and from a disaster management perspective the surface has only been in terms of how technology can be used to improve communication and access to information.

Despite this inequality in the use of, and access to, such technology, the information and technology revolution of the past decade is slowly spreading around the world. Latin America has made significant strides. In Mexico, for example, the number of phone lines per 100 people grew 60 per cent between 1992 and 2000; in Brazil, the number grew by 39 per cent. Today, Spanish speakers account for the highest percentage of the world’s online population among non-English languages. In particular, the disaster community in Latin America has taken some important steps to harness the power of the Internet and use it to improve disaster management.

Harnessing the power of the Internet for disaster management

Disaster management encompasses an entire continuum, from impact through response to preparedness and mitigation. Latin American countries are beginning to use the Internet throughout the entire cycle. The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), an early supporter of these initiatives, has witnessed firsthand the changes that have come about – both in disaster situations and in normal times – thanks to new technology.

Information Exchange during Disasters

Hurricane Mitch (October 1998) was the first Internet-intensive disaster in the Americas. It took an enormous toll on Central America. In Honduras alone the water distribution system in 23 of the country’s 30 hospitals was partially or totally destroyed. Sixty-eight of the 123 health centres that were seriously damaged were unable to function when more than 100,000 persons needed urgent medical care. Routine epidemiological reporting, which traditionally covers about 70 per cent of the population, fell to a mere 30 per cent after the hurricane because of a breakdown in communications, the isolation of communities, and a shortage of epidemiologists.

Information was one of the most important commodities in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. It affected the direction of the response efforts, the allocation of resources, and the nature of donations. In spite of breakdowns in some normal channels of communication, the Internet became a major provider of information. Breaking news appeared just as quickly on the Internet as it did in many major newspapers. Indeed, national authorities in the affected countries as well as international organisations and NGOs often found information on the Internet before they could complete their own assessments. But how accurate was this information? This question must be taken seriously because it was not uncommon for unsubstantiated reports of disease outbreaks or requests for all kinds of inappropriate donations on webpages to spring up overnight, as some of the same tenacious myths that surround disasters leapt from the printed page of newspapers into cyberspace (see accompanying article Stop Propagating Disaster Myths). Consumers of information had to carefully scrutinise and evaluate the source of the information.

What consumers learned was that, whether in electronic or print form, accurate and reliable information is best obtained from those who have been working in a country prior to a disaster – the ministry of health of the affected country, for instance, or NGOs and international agencies. Unfortunately in the past these were rarely the same groups who had the means, the experience and the infrastructure to be first-to-market with breaking news. But the Internet is changing all that. It is levelling the playing field by allowing agencies to use the Internet’s speed and global reach to compete with the major media outlets and so insert their information into the public debate and circulate information about genuine needs.

In the case of Mitch the web was used to post daily epidemiological reports and public health guidelines on topics ranging from household water quality to the prevention of outbreaks of measles. Technical guidelines were developed on a wide variety of the health consequences of disasters (www.paho.org/english/ped/pedhome.htm). Through this experience the donor community and the public were observed to become discriminating consumers of information. Whereas even five years ago the media could guarantee that whatever they broadcast in the immediate aftermath of a disaster would go virtually unchallenged for several days, governmental and non-governmental agencies are now catching up in an effort to provide solid information about genuine needs more quickly.

PAHO used e-mail distribution lists as a concerted post-disaster information strategy. Unlike the web, where users must take the initiative to seek out information, e-mail is proactive and can transmit customised information to specific individuals or groups. E-mail was used to send daily reports to donors about genuine health needs, prompting a quick and generous response. Electronic distribution lists were used to target media outlets providing them, for example, with information on best donation practices or honest and factual analysis of surveillance data. In fact one of the most powerful features of the Internet is its ability to make possible a horizontal exchange of information between and among producers and consumers. In bureaucracies, this means it is possible to bypass the customary centralised points of information collection and distribution – for example, the office of civil defence – and unclog traditional bottlenecks. While this may not be a popular notion with those in positions of authority who seek to control or put spin on post-disaster information, it is certainly good for democracy.

The Internet’s place in disaster preparedness

Hurricane Mitch is just one example of how the Internet can be used in disaster situations. But access to information is just as valuable a commodity in non-disaster situations as it is in the aftermath of a disaster. The advent of electronic publishing and full-text databases over the Internet opens the possibility of much closer interaction in all aspects of communication and information exchange. This will have a major impact in transforming information into knowledge – a prerequisite for the successful development of disaster reduction strategies and therefore good governance.

Latin American disaster managers began using the Internet as a communication tool in the mid-1990s to bridge the geographical divide that exists in the region and to share good practice and learn lessons before the ‘next’ disaster. The term community is often used in Internet circles to refer to people who share similar interests, concerns or challenges. This was the idea behind the creation of the first primarily Spanish-speaking listserv, which was used not only for general discussion of disaster issues but also for peer review of technical documents, and to circulate success stories and solutions to problems common throughout the region. These first listservs and discussion groups allowed disaster managers to ‘talk’ to each other when face-to-face communication was not possible.

Despite the fact that in non-disaster situations people generally have more time to pursue an indepth discussion, only a fraction of disaster managers, NGOs, health experts and others working to reduce Latin America’s vulnerability to disasters actually make use of this tool. Perhaps more would become involved if discussions centered on specific topics of concern – transparency in the humanitarian supply management process or an educational campaign on what makes a good donor, for instance. The organisation of such a targeted discussion would make an excellent pilot project and could include the participation of NGOs, universities, civil society and the health sector.

The Regional Disaster Information Centre

In Latin America, the Regional Disaster Information Centre (CRID) in Costa Rica has been a major catalyst in this transformation in the use of the Internet. The CRID is a multiagency center (www.disaster.info.desastres.net/crid) that exists to get information into the hands of users. It offers online access to a database of 12,000 published and unpublished articles, books, after-action reports and other reference documents, the majority written by Latin Americans and Caribbeans about their region. Disaster managers, students, researchers or anyone else can peruse the database from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the full text of most of the material is not available – a wasted opportunity that could easily be corrected if funding was made available to convert the material to digital format; currently, users must request hard copies of documents which are sent at no cost to them but at a significant cost to CRID in terms of handling and shipping.

Conclusion

Slowly, barriers surrounding access to and control of information are breaking down, and the Internet is helping to bring about this change. It used to be that power was gained by holding on to or controlling information. This is no longer the case. Thanks to the proliferation of online as well as traditional sources information now abounds, and consumers in Latin America can turn to a wide variety of sources. Power now rests in the hands of those who produce and disseminate information, and of those who recognise that democratising access to information will lead to good governance and transparency in all areas, particularly in disaster management. We cannot afford to ignore the irreversible impact of the Internet on how we produce and disseminate information. Nor can we afford not to make it a pivotal part of our disaster preparedness, mitigation and information strategies.

Patricia Bittner is Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Coordination Programme, PAHO, Washington DC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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