Communicating Disasters in digitally empowered Asia: A tale of two books

I have just spent a hectic week in Kuala Lumpur, and am just coming up for fresh air. That explains why this blog was silent for a few days.

I was at the Third Global Knowledge Conference (GK3) held in the Malaysian capital from 11 to 13 December 2007. With several related events preceding the main conference, my week was completely full.

GK3 was a global platform for all those engaged in using ICTs (information and communication technologies) for meeting the real world’s needs and solving its problems — to reduce poverty, increase incomes, create safer communities, create sustainable societies and support youth enterprise, etc. (Read my impressions of GK3 in this blog post.)

The week’s assorted events saw two separate video films produced by TVE Asia Pacific being screened as integral components of two sessions. These were The Long Last Mile (on community-based warning of rapid onset disasters) and Teleuse@BOP (on telephone use patterns among low income groups in five emerging Asian economies).

That wasn’t surprising because we produce and distribute films that capture Asia’s quest for improving lives through sustainable development. But unusually for myself, I also had two books coming out during the week — one that I had edited, and another that carried a chapter I had written.

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The first was Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, which I co-edited with Indian journalist Frederick Noronha. It was the culmination of a year-long process that began with an Asian brainstorming meeting on Communicating Disasters that TVEAP convened in December 2006 in Bangkok. That meeting, attended by three dozen participants drawn from media and disaster management sectors, identified the need for a handbook that can strengthen cooperation of these two communities before, during and after disasters.

The book, comprising 19 chapters contributed by 21 authors, has a foreword written by Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communication satellite. Pulling together these contributions from the specialist authored scattered across the globe was no easy task for co-editor Fred and myself.

The book’s blurb reads as follows:

“Where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention,” said Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres who later became the Foreign Minister of France. Disaster managers and relief agencies acknowledge the mass media’s key role at times of distress. Yet, the relationship between media practitioners and those managing disasters can often be stressful, difficult and fraught with misunderstandings. Communicating about disasters sometimes ends up as communication disasters.

How can these mishaps be minimised, so that the power of conventional and new media can be harnessed to create more disaster resilient communities? What value addition can the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) bring in? In this book, media and development professionals from across the Asia Pacific share their views based on decades of experience in covering or managing a variety of disasters – cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, floods, landslides and tsunamis.

This book is aimed at journalists, disaster managers and civil society groups who want to use information and communication to create safer societies and communities.

The other book that came out in KL was Digital Review of Asia Pacific, 2007-2008 edition. It was launched during a workshop on Emerging Knowledge Opportunities (The Progress of ICT in Asia-Pacific and Other Parts of the World) on 12 December 2007.

The completely updated edition of the Digital Review of Asia Pacific contains authoritative reports on how 31 economies are using ICT in business, government and civil society written by senior authors who live and work in the region.

I have written the Sri Lanka chapter for the book, continuing a tradition I started back in 2003 with the first edition of the book. I was only sorry that I missed the session during GK3 where the book was launched — because I was moderating another session exactly at the same time in another room. But I was glad to join at least part of the post-launch reception and to meet with some fellow authors who were attending GK3.

Both books are multi-author books, and both have been in the making for a year or longer. It was quite a challenge to get 20 other contributors to come up with their chapters for Communicating Disasters. They were genuinely interested and supportive, but everyone being so busy, it took time and effort to pull together all the strands.

I was not the only common author in these books. My colleague and one-time co-author Chanuka Wattegama (now with LIRNEasia) has written two distinctive chapters on ICTs and disaster communication for the two books.

Many years ago, my friend (now international expert on terrorism and widely published academic author) Rohan Gunaratna told me that writing a book was like waging a small war. I don’t normally use military metaphors, because I deplore all things military, but I can’t resist extending Rohan’s analogy to say that compiling a multi-author book is a bit like waging a mini-war with a coalition of the willing!

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