New communications technologies can improve responses to disasters, says report

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 03 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2477
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. 1London

New communications technologies can contribute significantly to the work of humanitarian agencies, says a new study. They can help people “build their resilience to crises by improving livelihoods, mitigating risks, and preparing for disasters” and help provide health information through mass media and community mobilisation, it says.

The study is from BBC Media Action, the new name for the BBC’s international development charity formerly known as the World Service Trust. Its policy director, James Deane, told the BMJ that the charity used media and communication “to help people affected by humanitarian emergencies cope with the situation and voice their opinions on relief and recovery efforts.”

The report points out that although “many humanitarian agencies continue to see communication as something that is done to raise money or boost the profile of their disaster relief efforts,” the sector is increasingly “seeing the need for a clear strategic focus that responds to the information and communication needs of those affected by disaster.”

Recognition of the benefits of such communication to improve programming and the overall emergency response is growing. However, the report emphasises that “in effective communication, affected communities need to be recognised and treated as experts and practitioners, not just audiences.”

Communication systems such as radio and television stations, mobile phone networks, and internet connections “often collapse just as people need them most in an emergency.” People lose their phones (or are unable to charge them), their radios, and their televisions.

The study says that “restoring and supporting these systems needs to be a priority.” In many emergencies this can be as simple as ensuring that radio stations have generators or fuel to stay on air. Increasingly it means “ensuring that they [the radio stations] have sufficient phone credit and restored internet access—vital to support their work.”

The restoration of mobile phone networks is essential, “especially where people may be trapped (eg following an earthquake) or where further warnings need to be issued urgently about, for example, spreading floods.”

The study’s lead author, Imogen Wall, said that during the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti “the social network Twitter proved better at monitoring the spread of the disease than traditional health surveillance systems” and that the local mobile phone network, Digicel, was able to provide data that tracked people’s movements and thus help predict where further outbreaks were likely to occur (BMJ 2011;343:d5646, doi:10.1136/bmj.d5646).

She said that most aid organisations “are very bad at sharing information in emergencies” and that the report “should serve as a wake-up call to humanitarian agencies that new technologies are not just revolutionising communications but also the way that people act during emergencies.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2477


  • Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive—and how Humanitarian Agencies Can Help is at