Abi Weaver of the American Red Cross gives her take on how technology affects the ability of individuals and communities to effectively prepare for emergencies, respond to increasing risks, and facilitate their recovery. Abi and her colleagues recently published A Vision for the Humanitarian Use of Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs with a significant focus on how the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement can help strengthen urban resilience.

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Abi, your recent report suggests that emerging technology solutions, such as wearable devices and 3D printers, can strengthen people’s abilities to cope with disasters, armed conflicts and health emergencies. Are there examples from the recent past that you hope future advances will build upon?

abiIt used to be, not that long ago, that disaster technology was only accessible to government officials and large nonprofits. The digital age changed that paradigm, and turned the traditionally top-down model of humanitarian action on its head.

Now, we see people on the receiving end of emergency aid, who until recently were far from where decisions are made, identifying and voicing their own needs directly. They are also improving their knowledge, designing their own solutions and expanding their coping strategies through technology by mobilizing local, national and sometimes global support.

In the past 6-7 years, in particular, we have seen smart phones, social media, sharing economies and other tools help redesign emergency preparedness and response operations by:

  • Facilitating community participation
  • Spreading lifesaving messages
  • Expediting service delivery even where power, connectivity, infrastructure and local training is lacking or limited

Even back in 2012, when the Red Cross sponsored a US-based poll on disaster technologies, mobile apps tied social media as the fourth-most popular way to get information in an emergency, following TV, radio and online news.

After each disaster the Red Cross responds to, in the US and abroad, we hear incredible stories on ways technology has helped people move past their worst days.

  • “Facebook helped my community organize.”
  • Airbnb helped me find shelter.”
  • “The Red Cross app helped me perform CPR.”
  • “A mobile money transfer helped me reopen my small business.”
  • “The ICRC and Google partnered to help me find my missing sister.”

Each one of these services simplify important actions, like earning money and accessing information—and collectively, they can help build a stronger, safer and more resilient community.

Is there any scientific research on the impact of emerging technologies that supports these compelling anecdotes?

Yes. Several academic and research institutes like MIT have studied how the Internet and other technologies have impacted society. That said, I’m probably going to disappoint a few people by answering the question in the title of this blog, with “we don’t know” if technology specifically strengthens our resilience. Yet.

A little over a year ago, the Red Cross and Red Crescent created a new initiative to look more closely and scientifically at the connection between resilience and technology. We met with more than 1,000 people, ranging from ordinary people to experts, to debate this question. And although we haven’t yet found a definitive answer to our question just yet, we learned a lot about what communities need to strengthen their resilience.

At various points throughout our initial research, people raised questions about society’s assumption that technology positively impacts resilience. Anecdotally, both community members and experts shared examples of ways technology had been helpful in past experiences and other instances when technology may have replaced traditional coping skills. The later becomes a problem when technology is not available during emergencies and people do not have alternate ways to access information, reconnect with loved ones, earn money or otherwise manage life’s shocks and stressors.

With their input, we determined that IF technology was going to strengthen resilience it would need to possess eight criteria.

A Resilience-Strengthening Technology Solution…

  1. …is multi-purpose. It is relevant and useful before, during and after emergencies as well as in daily life.  
  2. …is human-centered. It is developed in consultation with users and designed to address their wants and needs. It is therefore, by default, appropriate for the culture and lifestyle of its users and stakeholders. It is also supported by robust community outreach and education, and it is easy to learn and use.
  3. …is accessible. It is open, inclusive and increasingly affordable for consumers.
  4. …is governed by trustworthy leaders, systems and policies. It has access to relevant data and responsibly manages the data it generates.
  5. …is scalable or replicable. It grows to accommodate demand.
  6. …is It is reliable and permanent. It has the required financial resources to support its current use and growth, but does not compromise natural resources or the interests of future generations.
  7. …is resilient itself. It is rugged and able to withstand weather, wear, pressure and damage. It is power-efficient and increasingly leverages innovative sources of energy. It is supported by a network of redundant products and services, with which it is interoperable. It leverages the Internet when available but does not rely on it.
  8. …enhances community-level knowledge and health, connection, organization, economic opportunities, access to infrastructure and services, and/or management of natural resources.

Taking a look back at the most accepted and valued technology tools of the recent past, it’s clear just how important this criteria is to creating enduring and sustainable solutions.

What will it take to reach a conclusive answer to the question and truly understand how technology affects resilience?

Over the next two years, we will continue to research technology’s impact on resilience, widening our interviews to include additional communities and contexts. In the meantime, I urge every technologist, business leader, government official, researcher or humanitarian working on disaster technology initiatives to use our community-driven criteria as a guide. Not only will it improve and expand consumer acceptance and demand for the solutions, it will prevent technology from creating more vulnerabilities and compromising our resilience gains.

Through our expanded research, we hope to learn exactly how technology aids and detracts from a community’s capacity to effectively manage crises. As we learn more, we will share our insights at tech4resilience.blogspot.com. We will look to partner with the researchers who are already exploring how technology changes our society, and we will likely use the Haiti earthquake, Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan as case studies given the prevalence of and reliance on technology in those situations. We also want to invite ordinary people to participate in the study and share their own experiences.

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Tell us in the comments or via social media with the hashtag #tech4resileince –

How has technology helped you in an emergency? How has it created challenges?