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Humanitarians tap into Indonesians’ digital activism

Social media. For generic use Jason Howie/Flickr
Social media is increasingly important to humanitarian response
Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, ranks as the most Twitter-active city in the world, and the country is also one of the most active on Facebook, making it a laboratory for “digital humanitarianism” - the use of the internet to manage disasters, coordinate relief and raise awareness.

After Trian Airlangga’s request to open a bank account was denied by one of Indonesia’s largest banks, Bank Central Asia (BCA), because he is blind, took his protest to the internet and started an online petition.

More than 3,300 signed his petition in the week after it was posted, with social media users spreading the message.

BCA corporate secretary Inge Setiawati told local media that the bank had always required visually impaired customers to open accounts jointly with a relative to protect them from exploitation.

BCA has since changed its policy on accounts for clients with disabilities. “They have apologized to me and promised to do away with the discriminative policy against people with disabilities,” 26-year-old Airlangga told IRIN.

Arief Aziz, co-founder of Change.org Indonesia, the petition website Airlangga used, said several petitions on its website have resulted in policy changes.

“Social media has been an effective tool for mobilization in the last five years, as more and more people have entered the middle class and have access the internet,” he said.

Huge internet presence

Of the country’s 240 million people, there are some 61 million internet users, many of whom access online content with their mobile phones.

According to Paris-based analyst group Semiocast, Indonesia was home to 29.4 million users of Twitter in July 2012, and more than 2 percent of all Tweets posted in June 2012 came from the Indonesian capital.

Facebook has 64 million active users in Indonesia, making it one of the largest Facebooking countries in the world.

Local activists have taken note.

Organizers raised more than one billion rupiah (US$87,500) for paediatric cancer patients in a one-day event called Shave for Hope last year, thanks to a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #shaveforhope, said Pandji Pragiwaksono, a well-known television presenter and comedian who initiated the drive online. Individuals or companies donated at least 100,000 rupiah (about $8) for each volunteer who had a haircut for the cause.

This month, Pragiwaksono hopes to attract twice as many participants.

“The drive has been disseminated almost exclusively online. Radio is the only conventional media we have used to spread information about the event,” Pragiwaksono told IRIN.

Local activists online

Pragiwaksono said eight volunteers from an online Twitter campaign, @savementawai, were among the first to arrive on the scene following the October 2010 earthquake and tsunami disaster on the Mentawai Islands. The campaign eventually attracted more than 3,500 “followers” on the micro-blogging site, who received continuous updates on the disaster announcing needs and places to drop off aid.

More than 400 people were killed and 300 reported missing following the disaster; authorities estimated that up to 65,000 people were affected.

Twitter accounts such as @jalinmerapi (which has more than 55,000 followers) provided information about pockets of disaster-affected communities that needed aid so that those closest could quickly respond.

Communities also coordinated relief efforts via Twitter after the eruption of Mount Merapi in South Java the same year. That disaster killed 322 and displaced at least 137,000 people; local media reported the number of displaced as 320,000.

“Social media has helped tremendously in terms of empowerment and getting the message out to the public like never before,” said the Pragiwaksono. “The spirit to help one another has always been there but the internet makes networking easier.”

Downside to digital activism

But there are potential downsides to this kind of digital activism.

Nova Ratnanto, a Jakarta-based emergency response officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said inequitable distribution of aid is one problem.

"People get more information about certain areas that are exposed in social media. As a result there's an accumulation of aid supplies in those particular areas while unexposed areas get little help," Ratnanto said.

"This makes coordination more challenging and gives rise to jealousy on the part of those who get little attention," he said.

During the Mentawai tsunami, news exposure, some of it through social media sites, led to a deluge of untrained and under-equipped volunteers in the disaster zone.

"Many of them were not even equipped to help themselves," he said.

Digital humanitarianism

Since 2009 a UN initiative has been studying how to use data - including “tweets”, Facebook posts and mobile phone data - to advance human well-being.

UN Global Pulse, which is being piloted in Jakarta and Kampala, the capital of Uganda, uses information from social media, online news, web search records and mobile phone data to boost early warning, improve disaster needs assessments and humanitarian/development programme evaluations.

Research includes analysing tweets from Indonesia through keyword search filters to identify the public’s priority for the “post-2015” agenda and to track food price inflation. Data engineers and scientists are also analysing social media there to learn how people view immunization.

Another project, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT), has launched a project in Indonesia to create a free world map, built entirely by volunteers with satellite technology to reduce communities’ disaster risks. The project works with disaster managers to build realistic disaster scenarios through InaSAFE, an “open-source” impact-modelling software sponsored by and created in partnership with the Australian aid agency AusAid and the World Bank, said Kate Chapman, HOT project manager in Indonesia.

More than 1,000,000 buildings in Indonesia have been mapped so far.

"Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world and has the [world’s] fourth largest population. Improving disaster planning can have a huge impact on many lives," Chapman said.

Additionally, Peta Partisipasi Merapi (Merapi Participation Map) from the University of Gadjah Mada sought to share and gather information about community needs following the 2010 Merapi eruption.

Known as “crisis-mapping”, the field has changed and decentralized from its early days, said Chapman, when mappers were not even working from the countries hit by disaster. “Now often initiatives come from people in the same country as the disaster, and they are better designed to work for a specific context," she said.

Rapid changes

"Looking back to three and a half years ago, when I became involved in the field, things are vastly different,” Chapman said. “Individuals and organizations continue to learn from each event and look for ways to improve.”

In 2009, Valencia Randa started an online campaign called Blood for Life to connect blood donors and those who needed blood through the Twitter account @blood4lifeID, which now has near 50,000 followers.

“There are people who need blood and millions willing to donate theirs. So I thought it would be good if there’s a bridge that connects them,” she said.

The community now has 4,000 regular donors, said Randa.

“There was a mother who had ovarian cancer, but her surgery was delayed because there was no AB-type blood. A relative posted a message on Twitter, and in two hours we had found 20 donors,” she said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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