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OCHA harnessing social media data – How it could change the way you work

Posted: Thursday, 25 July 2013, New York | Author: iSeek/Maria Renee Luque

When flooding struck the Philippines in June 2013, OCHA produced a map showing the impacts of the storm based on social media data . In Libya, the tweets sent by the population on the ground facilitated the development of a crisis map. Daniel Gilman from OCHA talked about this trend in an interview with iSeek

“The changes we are seeing in the humanitarian, economic, peacebuilding, and other areas require primarily an understanding of how human networks are functioning, from the low tech, such as a radio, to the use of a cellular technology and internet-based instant messages”, explained Daniel Gilman, Humanitarian Affairs Officer and Imogen Wall, Coordinator, Communications with Affected Communities, who contributed to a recent OCHA report entitled ‘Humanitarianism in the network age – Including World humanitarian data and trends 2012.”   

“It is essential to devise ethical, responsible, and sensitive mechanisms of managing content generated by people in countries affected by natural disasters or violent conflict,” explained Daniel to iSeek.  For the UN, two of the main challenges are the gathering of data and the harmonization of information management within the UN system.

The report calls for more open and shared data across agencies and consequently greater coordination in the manner the UN produces and stores information. Data standardization would not only facilitate the structuring and categorization, but would move the Organization to a new level of response that is more efficient.

“What is missing is the next stage. How are those maps used? What was the impact of decision-making?” says Daniel. “We know that there is a strong cell phone penetration in Africa and that the Philippines are big users of social media, but regarding how these are used specifically in disasters and conflicts, it becomes more difficult. There are many pilot projects or case studies, but there is no hard data showing the impact and how effective it was.”

OCHA has done already some work through the Digital Humanitarian Network (, which is a loose network of volunteering technical organization, like Humanitarian Open Street Map or Translators Without Borders, who come together to respond to humanitarian crisis.

“If until now the UN has exclusively relied on information produced internally, we have to recognize that we are no longer in control, people are producing all this information and we have the obligation to find a way to how to take advantage of it, particularly in situations of life and death”, said Daniel in conclusion.