Technology & Science·Analysis

'We're all feeling Puerto Rico's pain': Tweets and social posts from disasters change how we help

Social media bombards us with news of natural disasters, and with that comes a risk of desensitization. But the technologies we rely on, on a daily basis, are also turning out to be critical tools for those trying to help — even from afar.

Despite new digital communications tools, those who need us most are likely to have trouble connecting

People are rescued from flood waters from Hurricane Harvey on an air boat in Dickinson, Texas, on Aug. 27. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

First Hurricane Harvey swept through the United States and into our social media feeds. Then, deadly earthquakes shook Mexico. Now, Hurricane Maria has ravaged Puerto Rico, filling up our timelines with news alerts and photos of despair.

Social media bombards us with news of natural disasters, and with that comes a risk of desensitization, as these increasingly frequent disasters become blurs of information in our feeds. But the technologies we rely on, on a daily basis, are also turning out to be critical tools for those trying to help — even from a distance.

If you're one of Facebook's two billion users, chances are, that's where you get much of your news. That's especially true with breaking news, which pops up in our social media feeds in real time. It also means that in addition to content that gets posted from major media outlets, we're seeing video and photos that individuals post from their smartphones.

According to Sara Falconer, the director of digital communications for the Canadian Red Cross, with the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, the organization's social media use went up by 6,000 per cent overnight.

"That's when we really saw a shift; 80,000 people were evacuated and so many of them had smartphones and were coming to us first on Facebook, rather than going to a centre or calling our help lines."

Clean technology investor Tom Rand says with more tweets and posts of natural disasters, 'our baseline shifts and a new normal emerges … and we become inured to it.' (CBC)

That degree of digital access also helps raise awareness among people who are more far removed from the disaster itself, but Falconer cautions it can also create a lot of digital noise to cut through.

Tom Rand, a clean technology investor and author of Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit, says, "The hope with social media is that it makes these things more prevalent and more pronounced, so we're all feeling Puerto Rico's pain because we can see and hear it close up."

But he tempers that optimism with concerns about how our reactions to news of these disasters changes, as we become increasingly bombarded by images of devastation.

"As we have more of this data of ever increasing natural disasters, our baseline shifts and a new normal emerges … and we become inured to it."

But with so much access to emerging technologies, it's not just the way we hear about breaking news that has changed. One of the greatest challenges in the wake of a disaster is that it can be hard to communicate.

That's a problem for people whose loved ones are trying to reach them, and for aid workers who are trying to reach disaster victims, particularly when the electric grid is affected, as is so often the case.

"Despite the fact that these tools are so useful, a lot of the people who are most impacted won't have a cellphone or won't have an internet connection," says Falconer.

Drones are being used to gather information in the aftermath of a disaster when an affected area is unreachable or high risk for aid workers. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Communicating with NASA Finder, drones

In response, a number of solutions are being designed to try and solve the problem of how we communicate with, and in, disaster zones. The Serval Project is one such example, allowing mobile phones to communicate directly with each other even when there is no network coverage.

New tools are also being developed to help find missing people and deliver relief aids, once help is on the ground. NASA Finder is a suitcase sized tool that can detect human heartbeats through nine metres of rubble, and drones are being used to gather information in the aftermath of a disaster when an affected area is unreachable or high risk for aid workers.

In addition to the development of new technologies, existing tools are also being utilized in disaster relief efforts. Currently, Tesla is sending power walls and solar panels to Puerto Rico in an effort to help the U.S. island territory restore electric power.

According to Rand, this presents a real opportunity to rewire infrastructure with newer high-tech solutions, so it becomes much more reliable in future storms. He explains, "hurricanes don't take out the coal plant. They take out the transmission and the distribution wires, so old grids simply can't be as resilient as the new grids."

And while there is some concern about social media users becoming desensitized to these disasters, or just gawking at the wreckage without taking steps to help, there are also really simple ways to assist, using the tools we use every day.

For example, someone created a registry on Amazon for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Items on the registry range from things you can buy with just a couple of dollars, such as shampoo and toothpaste, to more expensive rescue essentials, such as radios, flashlights and lifeboats. Not only does a registry like this have the potential to cut out the charity middlemen, and theoretically their overhead, for people who have the Amazon app already installed, helping, even with the purchase of a $3 bottle of shampoo, is as easy as a tap or swipe of your finger.

Whether it's our social networks, online shopping sites or smartphones, the tools we use on a daily basis are incredibly advanced and offer unprecedented ways to help in the face of disaster — even from afar.

A low-tech solution is sometimes better 

But when we're not facing imminent threats, there's also a tendency for companies to favour the fancy bells and whistles over simple features that could make all the difference in an emergency. A few weeks ago, Apple announced that its latest iPhone will come equipped with facial recognition to unlock the device. Ironically, the company is now being urged to enable the FM radio chip in iPhones that have them, so that people in need of information can tune in to radio broadcasts, even when data networks are down.

According to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, as of last year, even for devices that do come equipped with the feature, only 44 per cent of smartphones in the U.S. had their FM chips activated. In a statement, Pai said, "It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don't enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman."

The lesson there? Sometimes a low-tech solution is what's needed.

"Solutions have to take into account people that are not as connected to these technologies, so we're not abandoning the traditional ways of connecting to people, like radio," said Falconer.

"The people that need us most are very likely to have trouble connecting with us."

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.