Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities: A New Ocha Initiative

Local radio stations in Haiti organizing international family-reunification efforts. Flood survivors in the Philippines using Twitter to broadcast their plight and organize rescue. Disaster survivors calling and SMSing aid workers directly to ask for help.
 
The idea that information is a form of assistance is not new, but the massive growth in access to technology in the developing world, and the increasing evidence of the value that survivors put on access to communications in a crisis, mean this long, unmet gap needs to be addressed.
 
In 2012, OCHA invested in looking at how humanitarians can meet survivors’ information and communication needs. For OCHA, this area of work includes delivering on information as assistance (including self-help advice for people beyond the reach of physical assistance), improving how disaster responders can listen systematically and meaningfully to survivors, and focusing on the resilience of communications systems, such as mobile phone networks and local media, so that the capacity for surviving communities to connect with each other remains.
 
OCHA is exploring what it can do to deliver in these areas. Firstly in terms of what OCHA can do better, and secondly how we can help the humanitarian sector to improve delivery of communications in an emergency.
 
In 2012, OCHA launched the pilots in the Philippines during the response to Typhoon Bopha, where, for the first time, OCHA invited agencies to submit communications projects to the emergency appeal.
 
During the response, OCHA piloted activities that it will develop into standard services in a response. These included an initiative to collect images and footage of damage captured by survivors and shared on social media, and to verify and map them as part of rapid impact assessments. Working with the Digital Humanitarian Taskforce, this was completed in less than 36 hours.
 
A second area of work focused on improving access to weather forecasts and the Philippines early warning system, which was identified as a communications priority by affected communities. OCHA is now working with partners and the Government meterological agency to improve awareness of the early warning system and help survivors access weather information through posters, radio broadcasts and SMS alerts.
 
A second pilot is planned for 2013. In addition, at the global level OCHA will work with the global Communications with Disaster-Affected Communities network, with important new partners such as the GSMA (the global body representing the telecoms industry), and in mainstreaming communications with communities theory and practice within the organization, focusing on first responders including UNDAC. OCHA will also make humanitarian financing systems more open to projects that focus on communication and information as aid.
 
A meeting between OCHA staff and returnees in Borota, Eastern Chad. The most important concern discussed was the lack of clean water. © OCHA/Pierre Peron