Crying Wolf in the Global Village? Managing Disaster Early Warnings in the Age of Social Media

Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication - Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015

Participants of SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication – Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness held in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 8-9 Dec 2015

On 8 – 9 December 2015, I attended and spoke at the Asian Regional Workshop on “SHER (Science, Health, Environment & Risk) Communication: Role of S&T Communication in Disaster Management and Community Preparedness” held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

It was organised by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) in collaboration with the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), Korean Academy of Science and Technology (KAST) and the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) in Indonesia.

The workshop brought together around 25 participants, most of them scientists researching or engaged in publication communication of science, technology and health related topics. I was one of two journalists in that gathering, having been nominated by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NAASL).

I drew on over 25 years of journalistic and science communication experience, during which time I have worked with disaster managers and researchers, and also co-edited a book, Communicating Disasters: An Asian Regional Handbook (2007).

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

Nalaka Gunawardene speaking at Science, Health, Environment & Risk Communication Asian regional workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

The challenge in disaster early warnings is to make the best possible decisions quickly using imperfect information. With lives and livelihoods at stake, there is much pressure to get it right. But one can’t be timely and perfectly accurate at the same time.

We have come a long way since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.

The good news is that advances in science and communications technology, greater international cooperation, and revamped national systems have vastly improved tsunami early warnings during the past decade. However, some critical gaps and challenges remain.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Over USD 400 million has been invested in state of the art equipment for rapid detection and assessment. However, the system’s overall effectiveness is limited by poor local infrastructure and lack of preparedness. Some countries also lack efficient decision-making for issuing national level warnings based on regionally provided rapid assessments.

Warnings must reach communities at risk early enough for action. False warnings can cause major economic losses and reduce compliance with future evacuation orders. Only governments can balance these factors. It is important that there be clearer protocols within governments to consider the best available information and make the necessary decisions quickly.

Now, the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is making this delicate balance even more difficult. To remain effective in the always-connected and chattering Global Village, disaster managers have to rethink their engagement strategies.

Controlled release of information is no longer an option for governments. In the age of 24/7 news channels and social media, many people will learn of breaking disasters independently of official sources. Some social media users will also express their views instantly – and not always accurately.

How can this multiplicity of information sources and peddlers be harnessed in the best public interest? What are the policy options for governments, and responsibilities for technical experts? How to nurture public trust, the ‘lubricant’ that helps move the wheels of law and order – as well as public safety – in the right direction?

As a case study, I looked at what happened on 11 April 2012, when an 8.6-magnitude quake occurred beneath the ocean floor southwest of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Several Asian countries issued quick warnings and some also ordered coastal evacuations. For example, Thai authorities shut down the Phuket International Airport, while Chennai port in southern India was closed for a few hours. In Sri Lanka, panic and chaos ensued.

In the end, the quake did not generate a tsunami (not all such quakes do) – but it highlighted weaknesses in the covering the ‘last mile’ in disseminating early warnings clearly and efficiently.

Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

Speakers on ‘ICT Applications for Disaster Prevention and Treatment’ in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8-9 Dec 2015

See also: Nurturing Public Trust in Times of Crisis: Reflections on April 11 Tsunami Warning. 26 April 2012

I concluded: Unless governments communicate in a timely and authoritative manner during crises, that vacuum will be filled by multiple voices. Some of these may be speculative, or mischievously false, causing confusion and panic.

My full PowerPoint:


Updates from Tweet-land: Say it all in 140 characters…and why not?

Tweet, Tweet! Do you follow me yet?

I just passed the 500 mark in tweeting. That’s not a great number considering how some people tweet a dozen or more times every day. But I’m not into such high volume tweeting – the most I’ve done on a given day, I think, is half a dozen. So it took me several months to clock up 500.

I was a late-comer to Twitter. It was my friend David Brewer, new media activist, who persuaded me to sign up in late 2009. On his Media Helping Media website, he has been showcasing the new tools, platforms and opportunities for anyone to become a global media brand in just 100 minutes (he recently updated this quick guide, reducing the time to 60 minutes).

Since then, I’ve been learning the ropes and having fun. What started off as a way to share weblinks to my blog posts or other interesting online content has evolved – in just a few months – into an outlet where I can express my opinions on social, political or cultural topics of current interest. And as my regular readers know, I can be quite opinionated…

I don’t normally tweet about very personal experiences or impressions. But I do share insights from my frequent travels, and meetings with interesting people and ideas.

The past few months have provided me with ample material. I became single again in January, and am now trying to reboot my personal and professional lives, even as I raise a teen-aged daughter as a single parent. Meanwhile my country of anchor, Sri Lanka, is emerging from nearly three decades of civil war, and the trauma and militarisation that went with it, and is struggling to return to normal, peaceful days again. Both processes are fraught with many challenges, and the journey is also the destination.

Slowly but surely, I’ve realised that a good deal can be expressed in 140 characters or less that each tweet allows. The mandarins of verbosity may not agree, but as Shakespeare himself noted in Hamlet, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. As a writer, I already knew the power of concise and precise expression, and Twitter has only challenged me to be compact, punchy and imaginative.

Looking back, I realise that my tweeting has come at some cost to my blogging. It’s not the only reason, or even the main one, but I’ve been blogging less in the past few months even as I tweeted more. Blogging entails more work, whereas tweeting is really micro-blogging on the run. I can tweet in under a minute whereas an average blog post – at the level of hotlinking and illustrating I like to do – can take between 30 mins to an hour.

As I juggle bread-and-butter with my multiple passions (or the ‘jam’ on top), I’ve had less time for more reflective and leisurely blogging this year. It doesn’t mean that my blog will go the way of the blogger in this cartoon – if anything, it serves me as a caution!

Cartoon courtesy Hugh MacLeod

I started tweeting as an occasional habit, but should have known better. It took me a while to realise that it’s become a habit. And then, when I spent a few days in Beijing in late May this year, I almost developed withdrawal symptoms (Twitter is officially blocked in China). My resulting blog post, Twitterless in Beijing, has been widely linked to and discussed.

On a technical note, I’m still quite old fashioned in that I don’t post new tweets from mobile phones or other hand-held devices – all my 500+ tweets so far have been posted from the web, using my regular browser. I have no immediate plans to go for a fancy new mobile phone or ipad or similar device. I know mobile internet is the new wave, but I don’t yet have the urge to be tweeting on the run – I can hold my ideas and communicative urges until I sit down at my laptop…

But who knows what changes would occur on the road to my 1,000th tweet?

Here’s a collection of spoofs on famous quotes, as they apply to Twitter and tweeting. Some are very funny!