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How information volunteers solve communicative issues during a disaster

December 18, 2014

Volunteers Playing with Children-Refugees
Volunteers play with children at a disaster refugee centre near Yogyakarta, in Indonesia. Photo by Eko Suprati.

This is an invited post from Kurniawan Adi Saputro (@ksaputro) who is about to complete his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His thesis is a study of media audiences’ engagement in disaster response. He currently teaches at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts, in Yogyakarta.

The importance of ‘volunteer and technical communities’ (Meier, 2013) in today’s disaster response cannot be overstated. One of their key contributions is to help disaster-affected communities produce and obtain crisis information. They are especially needed to sift through a huge trove of crisis information, which is partly a product of widespread mobile phone adoption. Further, ‘volunteer and technical communities’ can lend their hand so that those affected by disaster can obtain local, up-to-date, and actionable information.

Much has been written about the technological issues of involving and serving the public in crisis communication. Here I want to highlight two communicative issues that these volunteers face, namely issue selection of the media and the public’s disconnection with the survivors. Jalin Merapi volunteers in Java, Indonesia, who provided alternative types of information and spaces of action from those of the mass media are a case in point.

Jalin Merapi

Jalin Merapi was founded in 2006 by a coalition of three community radios on the slope of Mt. Merapi, in central Java, two networks of community radio, and four local NGOs in the surrounding area. The coalition was formed after their realisation that during Mt. Merapi’s eruption in 2006 the people of Merapi needed to communicate more between themselves and that they could not rely on the mainstream media to voice their real concerns to the publics because the media listened to the authorities more than to them. In 2010, during the eruption of Mt. Merapi that claimed 367 lives and forced at least 410,388 people to evacuate the area (Surono et al., 2012), Jalin Merapi recruited and assigned approximately 700 volunteers to gather information about the refugees’ needs, to operate a media centre, and to help distribute the relief aid. In short, they created a medium whose central aim was to connect wider publics, especially potential donors, with the survivors.

Besides money, private donors in Indonesia are fond of giving in-kind donations. But there were two problems. First, there were thousands of them acting independently of each other. Second, different refugee camps might require different goods and services. For the survivors, Jalin Merapi provided an alternative channel to seek aid. For the donors, information from Jalin Merapi helped to determine what to provide in what quantity. It also helped donors identify which areas were still lacking supplies. Meanwhile the mainstream media would focus on the major refugee camps and the local governments were slowed down by red tape.

Reporting the overlooked

The 2006 Merapi eruption brought about Jalin Merapi activists’ realisation that they were being overlooked by the local government and the media. The local government’s disaster management was so weak that the people of Merapi had to pay for their own petrol to evacuate. On the other hand, the media could not be expected to voice their true concerns since, in the words of one of the founders, “… the media quoted the local government’s public relations. It might be due to their laziness, or due to them not knowing whom to talk to, that they did not go higher to the people’s place. They only went to the official refugee camps.”

This neglect motivated them to create an information network among the local people themselves, and between them and wider publics. The community radios on the different sides of Mt. Merapi supply the information and the NGOs in the surrounding cities help connect them with the wider publics. Their main tool of publication is the Jalin Merapi website, maintained by an NGO in the nearby city of Yogyakarta that specialises in providing technological support for communities.

Learning from the previous disaster, in 2010 Jalin Merapi stationed field information volunteers at or close to refugee camps. These were strategically selected so as to avoid those that had been well exposed by media. The volunteers were instructed to go to other refugee camps in the surrounding area and to report their needs. Along with bringing information from the less exposed area, Jalin Merapi actively posted messages on Twitter urging the donors to bring their aid to Muntilan and Magelang, not to the city of Yogyakarta which became the centre of attention. When a community living on the north-eastern side of the mountain refused to evacuate and, consequently, were isolated from the relief aid due to the police blockade, the information volunteers worked their way around the blockade and went back with a report. In another case, the public eye was focused on the refugee camps in the surrounding cities, whereas in fact more than ten thousands survivors took refuge in private houses in Gunung Kidul, 70 kilometres away from the disaster area. The citizen journalists brought up the issue and helped to turn the mass media and public gaze towards them.

The citizen journalists were required to focus on problems that were important to the survivors. Consequently, in the daily meeting they were encouraged to listen to the survivors’ problems, although they may have seemed trivial to outsiders. Furthermore, articles were not written to get a certain number of hits but to bring the survivors’ concerns to light. In the same spirit, the micro-blog channel was used to raise funds for the “pillow for Merapi” project whereby public could donated 10,000 rupiah (approx. one US dollar) for material that would be made into a pillow by volunteers. The website’s news section covered the refugees’ need for rubbish bins and paper wrap for food. The common interest of Jalin Merapi’s diverse media channels is its focus on the survivors’ immediate needs according to the survivors themselves.

Focusing on the survivors’ needs

Jalin Merapi learned a lesson when they attempted to connect the survivors with wider publics following the earthquake disaster in 2006 in the southern part of Yogyakarta that killed more than six thousand people. Seeing the disconnection between the supply of aid and the urgent needs of the survivors, they published print bulletins on alternate days and distributed them to the refugee camps. The problem was that they published the list of aid suppliers. Because the survivors’ needs were so high and the supplies were limited, the donors and the aid distributors on the list were overwhelmed with requests. Jalin Merapi was, in turn, reprimanded by the donors.

In 2010, Jalin Merapi decided to publish the needs, whereas the aid supply was published only occasionally and only if the donor specifically requested it. To solve the dilemma of speed vs. accuracy, Jalin Merapi chooses speed and treats the information as “accurate until proven otherwise.” This does not mean that there is no effort to verify the information. Efforts are made to make sure that the requests are correct and that the contact person exists and can confirm the request. From the audiences’ perspective, the voices of the survivors make the requests real, different from requests made by humanitarian organisation and the mainstream media. And the publics themselves love to see their aid reach the right person or, if possible, to distribute the aid in person and meet the survivors.

The weakness of this approach is that made-up requests cannot be distinguished from true requests before aid delivery. In fact, there was a case of a request for a generator that was later exposed by the donor to be fraudulent. Jalin Merapi published the story to warn other donors. Another problem it faces is that the requests may be made to many organisations simultaneously and can be fulfilled redundantly. Jalin Merapi cannot ascertain if and when a request can be fulfilled and by whom. Although Jalin Merapi manages the information centre and the aid distribution, the two operations are loosely connected.

Direct connection

The supply of information about survivors’ needs in disaster is an obvious problem to solve. There are many ways to go about it. The common approach is to rely on the authorities to source the information. This approach assumes the government and its agencies can keep abreast of the ever-changing circumstances of the refugees. During the Mt. Merapi eruption in 2010 the escalation of threat forced the refugees to evacuate three times, following the expansion of the safe zone threshold from 10 km to 15 km and finally to 20 km. The number of refugees surged from tens of thousands to about three hundred thousand people. The sudden change of reality rendered the hard earned data useless since refugees moved to new places and formed new groups. Furthermore, the way mass media covered refugees was aimed at creating an informed public, regardless of their action. Instead of helping the publics to donate themselves, Indonesian mainstream media liked to be the intermediary to whom people donated their money without being connected with the receiver (Abidin and Kurniawati, 2004; Heychael and Taniago, 2013). At variance with the media, Jalin Merapi provided information that could be acted upon by the publics and avoided standing in the way between the publics and the refugees (Dewi and Nasir, 2012).

Jalin Merapi changed the relationship between the subjects of news reports and the audiences by providing the opportunity to connect directly with the survivors. The phone number of the survivor or the volunteer was provided in the news article, in the micro-blog posts, and in the online live document. Concern over privacy was superseded by a more important objective, namely to allow the potential donors to contact the refugees. By calling the potential receiver first, the donors could spend their budget effectively. And after delivering the aid, the donors could keep themselves updated by maintaining a connection with the survivors. When the survivors moved, the donors knew how to reach them.

Two lessons can be learnt from Jalin Merapi’s information volunteers. One, we need to see beyond the traditional communicators of disaster (government and mass media) and pay attention to local people and ‘volunteer and technical communities’. Two, their strategic decision to put new and innovative technologies to use can be critical in disaster response.

Further reading

Abidin, H. and Kurniawati (2004). Galang dana ala media. Jakarta, Piramedia.

Dewi, A. S. and A. Nasir (2012). Solid@rity from the crowd: The use of ICT and collective action for disaster relief in Indonesia. In: CITS – ICT4D working paper series conference, August 17. Yogyakarta, Centre for Information Technology Study, Sanata Dharma University. Unpublished.

Heychael, M. and R. Thaniago (2013). Ketika televisi peduli: Potret dilematis filantropi media. Jakarta, Remotivi.

Meier, P. (2013). Strengthening humanitarian information: The role of technology. In IFRC, World disaster report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Last accessed 18 December 2014 at http://www.worlddisastersreport.org/en/download/index.html

Surono, et al. (2012). The 2010 explosive eruption of Java’s Merapi volcano: A ‘100-year’ event. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 241, 121-135.

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