The key role of mainstream media in disaster management

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 6 November 2013 07:34 GMT

In a 2011 file photo, a reporter for Korean television does a report standing in floodwater in Bangkok, on Nov. 2, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Social media and mobile phones have become essential for managing emergencies, but mainstream media provide the immediate reports for early damage and needs assessments

Ever since the Haiti earthquake in 2010, social media has become an essential tool for managing emergencies as the combined power of social networks, mobile phones and mapping technology provides citizens with an unprecedented opportunity to seek help in a disaster.

Using Twitter as a basis for crisis maps is now commonplace, while news media have become increasingly digital and can be analysed in real time for disaster management purposes.

But as Patrick Meier, a leading expert on the use of new technologies for crisis early warning and humanitarian response, points out, non-digital media are sometimes at the forefront of providing vital life-saving information.

“Twitter added little value during the recent Pakistan earthquake, for example,” Meier writes on his iRevolution blog. “Instead, it was the Pakistani mainstream media that provided the immediate situational awareness necessary for a preliminary damage and needs assessment.

“This means that our humanitarian technologies need to ingest both social media and mainstream media feeds.”

Local community media, in particular radio, played a vital in the humanitarian response to the 2011 Japan earthquake, a report by Internews published earlier this year showed.

Combining the monitoring of mainstream media as well as user-generated content helped to provide a more complete crisis map of Kenya during the 2007/08 election violence, Meier showed in a study. 

But while this used to mean ploughing manually through masses of news sources, a new tool – the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) –  makes linking information from social and mainstream media easier, Meier writes.

GDELT, launched earlier this year, contains almost a quarter of a billion records from news sources on events ranging from riots and protests to diplomatic efforts and peace appeals. It is the single largest public and global event data catalogue ever developed, according to Meier.

GDELT covers all countries from 1979 to the present day with daily updates and is based on a cross-section of all major international, national, regional, as well as local and hyper-local news sources, both print and broadcast, and in English and local languages, according to its website.

All records in the open database are georeferenced to the city or landmark mentioned in the article, and all records include ethnic and religious affiliation of both actors as provided in the text.

The GDELT team has just launched its Global Knowledge Graph (GKG), which aims to connect “every person, organisation, location, count, theme, news source, and event across the planet into a single massive network that captures what is happening around the world, what its context is and who’s involved, and how the world is feeling about it, every single day”, according to its website.

Meier points out that a customized version of the graph could potentially prove useful for Who Does What Where (3Ws), a directory of actors involved in humanitarian emergency response run by the United Nations emergency response coordination office (UN OCHA).

GDELT is run by Kalev Leetaru of University of Illinois, Philip Schrodt of Penn State (PSU) and Patrick Brand of University of Texas at Dallas.

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