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Social media for emergency communication in Sri Lanka

People in Sri Lanka felt the tremors from the April 11, 2012 tsunamigenic earthquake. Reports indicate that, before the Government of Sri Lanka could issue any kind of bulletin, within 10-15 minutes of the tremors, people were receiving tweets of the event. Samarajiva wrote – “Tweets kept flying. I and several others active in social media kept emphasizing that only a “watch” existed, that people should be alert and not do anything for now”; see full article in LBO. However, does twitter reach all Sri Lankans? A question that the VoiceICT4D funded project has been addressing.

Countries with lower internet penetration rates and lower computer literacy are less inclined to use text-based ICTs. Moreover, those citizens that use less popular languages with less technically supported character sets are far less likely to use a medium such as twitter. There are some who use fanatics but that is a very very low percentage.

A paradigm in emergency communications is that technologies that are integrated in to daily lives are more likely to work during a crisis than specialized equipment. Evidence points to a predominant portion of the people are inclined to use voice more so than text, especially, in middle and low income countries. Moreover, there are barriers to using text-ing such as SMS, among these socio-economic societies.

I presented our research findings and claims, for the need for more voice-enabled technologies to mobilise Community Emergency First Responders (CERT) and Community-based organizations in responding to crises, at the International Conference on Computer and Information Science (ICCIS 2012). Our paper discussed the uncertainties persistent in Interactive Voice Response systems and how that may interfere with reliable emergency communications to alert  CERT members and receive situational reports (click to view slides).

Coming back to text-based solutions, the IVR system discrepancies discussed in the paper are not prevalent in text-based social media type solutions. However, one must be cautious in integrating such social media ICTs in public safety applications. At the same conference, Alan Oxley, in his plenary session, discussed this very issue of “security risks in social media technologies: safe practices in public safety applications“.


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