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Confusion following Congo explosions underscores need for real-time reporting

March 5, 2012  »  MobileNo Comment

Technology – notably in the form of mobile communication (crowdsourcing, social media, SMS) – can ameliorate negative consequences of disasters (both natural and man-made).

Reports suggest great fear and confusion along the Congo River in the hours following the first of massive explosions that killed over 200 people and injured hundreds more in Brazzaville. Many feared the nation was at war or in the midst of a coup. Others faced overwhelmed hospitals. Many more faced damaged homes and businesses.

To its credit, the government of Republic of the Congo did attempt to disseminate information via television (and the DRC was contacted as well). Still, direct mobile communication could have calmed citizens’ nerves even quicker than television/radio and more accurately than the resulting word-of-mouth that ensued. Mobile internet is still rare in the country, but transmission across this medium can still provide accurate information to “super users” who, in turn, can verbally relay the accurate news to their social sphere of non-Internet users.

Way to improve crisis responses include:

  • the utilization of crowdsourcing (ie. the Ushahidi platform) to track the aftermath – areas affected, extent of damage, timeline of events, supply coordination, and medical resources. Damage from the munitions explosion reportedly covers a 5km radius. Tens of thousands of people are immediately affected and need constant updates. Plus, hospitals quickly filled up with injured victims of the blasts. Perhaps real-time information could divert patients to hospitals that have greater resources available.
  • the use of SMS and social media to track down the status of missing persons. Again, real-time information can reduce panic. An hour of uncertainty is much more desirable than two, for example.
  • the government’s issuance of an immediate SMS announcement (ahead of television, even) stating that the country is not at war and the event was an accident. Basically, in times of emergency, require all telecom operators to deliver public safety messages to all subscribers.
  • encourage citizens to use disaster apps (or similar) that can send a blast saying “I’m safe!’ to all contacts at the push of a button.

The goal of technology is to save lives by making information more accessible. Although social media doesn’t appear to have played a vital role in eliminating confusion following the Brazzaville explosions, it will undoubtedly play a role in the future. Brazzaville, among other cities, would be wise to use the events of March 4th to modernize crisis response plans.

The explosions are no doubt a major disaster that will reverberate around the nation for weeks to come. Although technology cannot completely heal emotional wounds, it can help calm nerves.