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Nobody has come to help us yet. wip paper digital sociology conference
Nobody has come to help us yet: giving voice and visibility to marginalized communities during a
Femke Mulder, Smart Disaster Governance, Department of Organization Sciences, VU Amsterdam,
Work-in-Progress Paper for the panel on Online Grassroots Activism, Hashtag activists, and Citizen’s
Digital Literacy at the Mini-Conference on Social Change through Social Media [with Digital Sociology
Mini-Conference], 19 March 2016
Smart Disaster Governance
Department of Organization Science
When a region is hit by a large-scale disaster, established power structures tend to be severely
affected. Until a new status quo becomes established, the country finds itself in a state of in-
betweenness, or liminality. This period is marked by an absence of clear power structures, making it
possible for new empowering social practices to take hold that challenge the old status quo. Indeed,
in recent years online community platforms have increasingly been used during crises in an attempt
to enable citizens’ agency. In this paper we explore attempts by online grassroots activists in Nepal to
empower overlooked marginalized communities in the aftermath of two earthquakes in order to
improve their condition long-term. When Nepal was struck twice by earthquakes in the spring of 2015,
humanitarian agencies focused their work primarily on the Kathmandu Valley area, which is the heart
of government and business. Other areas were worse affected but received far less assistance. Indeed,
some rural areas and communities of so-called “untouchables” still had not received any assistance
two months after the first earthquake struck. This suggests that old power structures, although
destabilized, still greatly influenced the response. This paper will explore how the changing power
dynamics in Nepal, brought on by the earthquakes, shaped the humanitarian response, looking in
particular at the role of online grassroots activists and their efforts to give visibility and voice to those
most in need.
Note on the research project
This research contributes to a wider project funded by the Netherlands’ Organisation for Scientific
Research (NWO) entitled “Enhancing smart disaster governance: assessing the potential of the net-
centric approach”. The aim of this overarching project is to identify ICT and organizational practices
that enable responders to draw on information and capabilities present in heterogeneous community
networks in order to complement – or replace - formal top-down ‘command and control practices’ in
disaster response settings. In this project we combine qualitative research (e.g. interviews, shadowing,
observations) with social media analytics as well as social network analysis. This work-in-progress
paper is based on fieldwork carried out in Nepal in June 2015, six weeks after that country was struck
by two major earthquakes, as well as qualitative analyses of online grassroots humanitarian
community platforms, specifically QuakeMap. Our current data set and analyses will be
complemented by a semantic network analysis of the communications logged on quakemap.org as
well as follow-up fieldwork in Nepal, which has been planned for April and May 2016.
When a region faces a major humanitarian crisis, large numbers of national and international agencies
and citizen led groups tend to become active in order to respond to the unfolding disaster. In order
for these humanitarian actors to respond effectively, they need adequate and timely information on
the needs and priorities of affected communities. A lack of awareness of the situation on the ground
among these humanitarian actors can result in groups of affected citizens being overlooked during the
response. Furthermore, a lack of awareness of what humanitarian initiatives are active, what they
provide and how they can be linked up with, limits the agency of affected communities. Hence, the
extent to which different affected community groups are able to access – and contribute to –
humanitarian information flows is likely to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of a response
(Mulder, et al. forthcoming). Being connected to crisis-relevant networks strengthens affected
communities’ ability to cope with - and adapt to - disaster situations. This is because it allows them to
access crisis relevant information and share information about their needs with people outside their
communities who might be able to assist – be it (inter) national humanitarian agencies, government
bodies, formal grassroots organizations, or emergent citizen led initiatives. Web 2.0 platforms play an
increasingly important role in humanitarian coordination and communication exchanges, particularly
toward enabling citizen involvement (Boersma et al, 2014). The (partial) collapse of established power
structures in the aftermath of a disaster makes it possible for new empowering social practices to take
hold that challenge the old status quo. As such, an effective humanitarian response has the potential
to improve the condition of marginalized groups long-term. However, if marginalized groups are
overlooked or excluded from coordination efforts, a response can also reinforce and exacerbate pre-
existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.
Disasters as opportunities for change
Not all aspects of crises are negative. The term “crisis” comes from “krisis”: the medical term
Hippocrates used to describe a turning point in a disease. It comes from the Greek “krinein” which
means to judge, separate or decide (Sellnow & Seeger, 2013: 8). Indeed, crises can be regarded as
opportunities for addressing - and changing – ingrained but harmful beliefs and behaviours. The co-
evolution of societies and their environments gives rise to specific patterns of social and economic
vulnerabilities and (cultural) perceptions of danger and risk (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman, 2002). These
processes shape what hazards are likely to emerge in a given setting and how individuals and
organizations respond to them. Not all social groups are affected equally by extreme events. Some are
more able to absorb the impacts of external and internal system shocks without losing the ability to
function, adapt to their changed circumstances and recover from those shocks (Tierney, 2014). As
such, the extent to which an extreme event constitutes a disaster varies by social group.
Over the past three decades disasters have increasingly been interpreted as functions of the ongoing
social order rather than as the as the result of geophysical extremes (e.g. Hewitt, 1983; Oliver-Smith
and Hoffman, 1999). The nature and extent of people’s resilience in the aftermath of an extreme
event depends largely on people’s assets and capabilities. Of particular importance is social capital
(Putnam et al. 2004) for this enables people to connect, share information and cooperate with other
people. The extent to which people can access or leverage assets and capabilities is determined by
long-term social processes of in- and exclusion that are the product of the coevolution of societies
with their environments. Key determinants of vulnerability are poverty and being subject to prejudice
(based on e.g. ethnicity, disability, class, caste, gender, age, etc.). When faced with risks and extreme
events, different stakeholder groups are consequently marked by different – potentially conflicting -
needs, interests and discourses. Different actors ‘see’ risk and disaster as different types of events. As
a result, they prepare for, manage and record them in different ways (Bankoff and Hilhorst 2009). A
disaster is, then, the result of the interplay between potential hazards and behaviour over time. The
processes that give rise to disasters tend to be integral to the operations of the status quo. As such,
they usually remain largely unchallenged in mainstream discourse during ‘normal’ times. Disasters
bring them to the fore: they show to what extent different social groups are affected by extreme
events and make their different levels of vulnerability visible (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman, 1999).
When a country is struck by a disaster, the established order is often severely affected. Until the old
status quo is firmly re-established, or a new one has taken its place, communities are in a state of in-
betweenness, or liminality (Horvath, et al. 2015). The temporary absence of clear power structures
that marks the aftermath of a disaster makes it possible for new social practices to emerge that
challenge the old status quo (Sellnow & Seeger, 2013). Solnit (2010) argues that during this liminal
phase communities often ‘reset’ from a state of socially stratified isolation and calculated self-interest
to one marked by pro-social attitudes and behaviours, such as altruism, participation and
purposefulness. As such, disasters constitute an opportunity for activists to facilitate the development
of networks of cooperation and communication between different community groups, potentially
linking up marginalized groups. The ability to access and contribute to crisis information and response
activities helps communities develop the situational awareness they need in order to effectively
organize their own localized response on the basis of their (remaining) assets and capabilities – and
coordinate their efforts with those of formal humanitarian responders. This builds these groups’ social
capital, enabling their agency and boosting their resilience in the face of future calamities. However,
vulnerable communities often face barriers that (partially) cut them off from such networks and
information flows, limiting both their agency and their visibility.
The response to the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal
In the spring of 2015, Nepal was hit by two large earthquakes, which occurred 17 days apart. As a
result, close to 9000 people died and a large number of public and private properties were severely
damaged, rendering over half a million people homeless. When a major disaster unfolds, the national
government is responsible for the coordination of humanitarian action. However, if the national
government is unable to take on this role – as was the case in Nepal – the United Nations takes on this
responsibility, addressing the disaster in partnership with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and
international organizations (IOs), such as the Red Cross. The United Nations Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) activates a number of relevant groups or ‘clusters’,
each focusing on a different top-level area of humanitarian importance, such as health and shelter.
These clusters function as points of contact for different humanitarian actors working in these fields.
It also provides them with a clear physical – and also virtual – space to get together, learn about each
other’s plans and activities and potentially partner or coordinate their activities. In addition to the UN
cluster system, in Nepal other formal coordination mechanisms were also activated, such as the NGO
federation of Nepal, which has local branches or ‘chapters’, and brings together both national and
international NGOs working in the same geographic area. (I)NGOs and IOs identified and choose
suitable partners to work with through these established mechanisms. At district level, they
cooperated closely with local Nepalese authorities. The number of different stakeholders involved in
the response was enormous. When we conducted fieldwork in Nepal, six weeks after the second
earthquake had struck the region, hundreds of NGOs were active in the country (Boersma et al., 2016).
In addition to formal humanitarian initiatives, we observed local community-led mutual assistance as
well as nation-wide grassroots initiatives, some of which were organized around online community
platforms. However, only representatives of formal humanitarian organizations tended to be present
at the official coordination mechanism meetings described above – or be included in their
Citizen involvement through open data and crowdsourcing
Integrating the efforts and knowledge of local community groups and formal humanitarian agencies
could help the latter in their efforts to deliver aid on the basis of need and help prevent self-organized
groups receiving far less support than groups with lesser needs but better connections. The
importance of maximizing the strengths inherent in localized response systems – as opposed to forging
standardized responses in a top down manner – has been recognized for over thirty years (e.g.
Drabek,1983). The ability to contribute to – and access – information about an unfolding crisis helps
communities develop the situational awareness they need in order to effectively organize their own
localized response on the basis of their (remaining) assets and capabilities – and coordinate their
efforts with those of formal humanitarian responders ((Palen et al. 2010; Baharmand et al,
forthcoming). Open data activists hold that the public should have access to the raw data that informs
the policies, strategies and actions that affect them – and be given the opportunity to be actively
involved in the decision making process (Baack, 2015). Indeed, capitalizing on citizen-based
information could enable humanitarian agencies to become more adaptive to the situation on the
ground, reducing the vulnerability of local communities, while also improving the relevance and
delivery of response (Boersma et al., 2014). In this context the inclusion of the most vulnerable is of
paramount importance: they have the fewest assets and capabilities to respond to a crisis, yet, like
most communities affected by a disaster, they have to take the lead on coordinating the immediate
local response because formal organizations take time to become active. Access to timely, relevant
and reliable information and connections would enable vulnerable communities to foster their own
resilience in the immediate aftermath of a crisis by building on their remaining assets and capabilities
and coordinating their efforts effectively with those of formal organizations. As such, they might
continue to be able to play an active leading role in the coordination of relief, allowing for a grassroots’
led response – instead of a top-down approach. The rise of Web 2.0, with interactive websites and
online community platforms, has facilitated a broader public participation in crisis responses (Palen
and Liu 2007; Hughes et al. 2008; Palen et al. 2009). Open data activists have created civic technologies
to facilitate citizen participation through crowdsourcing and “make raw data accessible to the wider
public” (Baack, 2015: 6). These technologies have great potential in that they are easily scalable,
require few resources, and rely on volunteers. They can open up opportunities to participate to
previously disengaged groups (Resor, 2015).
Some of the earliest documented cases of citizen participation in creating and using crisis data through
social media was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005). Affected citizens used online
community platforms to find and share information, connect with loved ones and grieve (Procopio
and Procopio 2007; Shklovski et al. 2010). Furthermore, people used social media to raise and collect
funds, locate missing individuals and find shelter for people who had lost their houses (Torrey et al.
2007; Macias et al. 2009). Another early example of using social media for collective-intelligence and
crowdsourcing is students’ use of Facebook during the Virginia Tech school shooting in 2007 to locate
their friends and share experiences (Vieweg et al. 2008; Palen et al. 2009). A defining moment in online
community participation in crises was the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Prior to this event, citizen
involvement through social media consisted mainly of informal, peer-to-peer assistance (Hughes and
Tapia, 2015). At this point in time, crowdsourcing for social ends was already well-established, but
fairly marginal to humanitarian relief work in disaster settings. However, the deployment of
crowdsourcing platforms, especially Open Street Maps (OSM) and Ushahidi, during the immediate
aftermath of the Haiti earthquake gave this approach enormous momentum. Open Street Maps
(OSM), known as ‘the Wikipedia of maps’, is a volunteer-driven platform that aims to make
crowdsourced geospatial data accessible to all for free. The Ushahidi platform was created in 2008 to
enable the mapping of crowdsourced information about the violence that followed the 2007-08
elections in Kenya. The platform enables the datafication of information pulled from online
community platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, as well as information received via text
message. On the basis of this data, reports can be created that can be categorized on the basis of their
content. In the direct aftermath of the Haiti crisis, using these platforms and open source tools,
volunteers based around the word worked around the clock to extract crisis relevant information from
social media and embed this information into online maps (Norheim-Hagtun and Meier 2010; Zook et
al. 2010). These platforms addressed a significant crisis information gap that up to that point had
remained unfilled. At the time, the online crisis map created through the Ushahidi platform was
proclaimed by the US Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) as the “the most
comprehensive and up-to-date source of information on Haiti for the humanitarian community” (as
reported in Heinzelman, 2010: 9).
Open data and crowdsourcing in post-earthquake Nepal
In 2012, the World Bank supported the initiation of the ‘Open Cities Kathmandu’ project. The short-
term aim of this project was to map the health services and schools in the Kathmandu valley area
using OSM (Soden, 2014; World Bank, 2014). The project’s longer term aim was to develop a local
OSM community, build local OSM capacity, and create local ownership of the OSM data. This way, the
local community would be able to maintain and improve the dataset after the Open Cities project was
finished. In so doing, the project aimed to improve the disaster resilience of the people of Kathmandu
for when the earthquake would inevitably strike (Soden, 2014). When the health services and schools
in the Kathmandu valley area had been mapped and the Open Cities Kathmandu project ended, the
people working on the project, most of them Nepali, formed the NGO Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL).
They continued to map the Kathmandu valley area but had only partially completed their work when
the first earthquake hit Nepal in April, 2015. When this happened, thousands of remotely located
volunteers from the Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) came online to rapidly complete the maps
created by KLL and the local Nepali OSM community, using satellite imagery.
In the immediate aftermath of the first earthquake, KLL quickly rolled out QuakeMap, a civil
technology that ran on the Ushahidi Platform. QuakeMap was an open data platform that aimed to
connect people affected by earthquakes with responding organisations. KLL crowdsourced
information on local needs: affected people could report their requirements via a hotline, SMS or
through an online form. KLL then checked this data (often by telephone) and created a crisis data
report, which it categorized and placed on a map. Both data reports and map were freely accessible
online. It was possible to view the website in English, Nepalese and Hindi. However, the reports were
in English and were not translated. A screenshot of QuakeMap is depicted in figure 1 below.
Figure 1: Screenshot of QuakeMap – most crisis reports came from and were about digitally literate Kathmandu Valley; not
the worst hit regions
Figure 1 shows that most crisis reports were geo-tagged as in the Kathmandu valley. It is important to
highlight that this was not the worst hit area and that the adjacent rural regions were affected far
worse: Gorkha, Dhading, Nuwakot, Rasuwa, Kavrepalanchok, Dolakha and Sindhupalchok (OSOCC,
2015). The Kathmandu valley area is more densely populated and its inhabitants are more educated
and digitally literate. In many rural areas of Nepal, the basic literacy rate is only 40%, and the digital
literacy rate is marginal at best. The result of this is a community crowdsourced crisis map that focuses
the attention on the area with the highest concentration of people who are able to voice their needs
through ICT. As such, it does not highlight which communities are most in need. Based on this map,
people without much knowledge of Nepal’s digital landscape are likely to draw the conclusion that aid
should be targeted at the Kathmandu valley area.
The example of QuakeMap above shows that crowdsourcing of crisis information can result in datasets
that reflect existing inequalities, especially digital divides (Crutcher & Zook, 2009; Elwood 2007;
Goodchild, 2007). Therefore, some raise concerns that crowdsourced crisis data can result in societal
inequalities being replicated, especially if marginalized communities are underrepresented by or
excluded from data (Crutcher & Zook, 2009; Elwood, 2007). In the immediate aftermath of the first
earthquake in Nepal, both traditional and social media focused predominantly on the damage suffered
in the Kathmandu area. This is likely to have contributed to the fact that formal responders, such as
government bodies, (I)NGOs and IOs, initially focused their aid efforts in this area. The logistical
challenges involved in reaching remote mountainous villages meant that some of the worst hit
communities had to wait weeks before their needs were assessed and aid was given. The people at
QuakeMap had done much to make their platform accessible: in addition to their website they also
processed information by phone and by text message. They actively sought to link back to the people
who had originally provided the data. They checked the accuracy of the data not only at the opening
and closing of a report by telephone, but also phoned local people who had provided information
whilst a data report was still open, to check if filed data was correct and up to date. Nevertheless, they
were unable to alter Nepal’s ICT infrastructure. Some communities in the worst hit regions (e.g.
Dhading) barely had any cell phone reception during the aftermath of the crisis.
In addition to physical access to cyberspace, there are also numerous barriers within cyberspace that
prevent marginalized communities to a greater or lesser extent from broadcasting their needs to the
wider world and accessing important crisis-related information online. There is not one cyberspace.
Rather, there are numerous cyberspaces that are separated by virtual divides (Graham, 2011). These
divides may be cultural or linguistic in nature. People are generally restricted to those sections of
cyberspace that are available in a language they can read. As mentioned, the actual crisis reports on
QuakeMap were only available in English. Logging the reports in English made sense because it made
them accessible to international humanitarian responders who did not speak Nepali. This had the side
effect however that QuakeMap became a crisis dataset and map that – even though they were open
access – could not be read and therefore used by local Nepalis who didn’t speak English (see also
Sutherin, 2013 for the same observation about crowdsourced crisis data during the aftermath of the
2010 earthquake in Haiti). Virtual divides also result from knowledge and skills gaps. Marginalized
communities may lack access to sources and connections that could inform them of the existence of
online platforms through which they could share and access crisis information. A lack of knowledge of
the existence of certain cyberspaces clearly constitutes a barrier to participation. Varying levels of
literacy and digital literacy further influence people’s ability to participate.
Bridging digital divides
Barriers to accessing and sharing crisis data prevent marginalized communities from using
crowdsourced information to develop the situational awareness they need in order to organize their
own response actions in coordination with formal humanitarian organizations. Their lack of knowledge
about the state of the response renders their own activities less efficient as they don’t know when
they can expect what type of aid. In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, a number of
projects attempted to set up two ways flows of information between affected communities and the
humanitarian response at the national level in order to ensure that aid was targeted at the most
vulnerable. Code for Nepal and Mobile Citizen Helpdesks, for example, used open data platforms and
crowdsourcing to “close the loop on information related to the earthquake response to ensure relief
efforts reach those most in need” (Mobile Citizen Helpdesks, 2015).
Code for Nepal
Code for Nepal (‘Code’) is a small NGO that lobbies for open data and aims to address the digital
divides that mark that country. When the first earthquake struck Nepal, it was the perception of the
team at Code that the humanitarian response focussed almost exclusively on the Kathmandu valley
area. In order to turn the attention of responders to other regions that were also badly affected, the
team at Code turned to crowdsourcing, deliberately using a low-tech digital approach in order to lower
barriers to participation. The non-profit relied on commonly used digital tools (e.g. Google Docs) and
popular mainstream social media (e.g. Facebook). Anyone with moderate digital literacy and
familiarity with Google Docs could contribute: no additional training or specialist ICT knowledge was
required. In order to connect with people on the other side of the numerous digital divides that mark
Nepal, the core team sought to recruit volunteers based in specific geographical locations. It was
hoped that these focal points would use their digital know-how to act as bridges, linking their off-line
(often rural) communities to what was happening online. Because it was a relatively small-scale
project, affected people were able to communicate directly with Code volunteers (e.g. using Viber),
informing them about the situation on the ground and checking on what was being done. Code
volunteers would also proactively get in touch with people who had shared information to provide
them with updates on what had been done and to verify the information they had received. Twenty
so-called ’super-users‘ had been identified and tasked with checking and managing the crowdsourced
information. Code also translated and mapped district government data to make this information
available to affected people and responders. Here it is worth noting that most information on Code’s
website and Facebook page is in English and not in Nepali. Hence, a significant access barrier
remained. However, people who did speak English and who did have moderate ICT skills (i.e. who
knew how to use email, Facebook, Twitter and Google Docs) were able to contribute their local
knowledge, gain access to this information, and monitor how it was being used.
Mobile Citizens Helpdesks
Mobile Citizen Helpdesks aimed to provide a platform for communities affected by the recent
earthquakes in Nepal, emergency responders and volunteers to report gaps at the last mile of
humanitarian relief distribution. The project was a joint initiative by the international charities
Accountability Lab and Local Interventions Group, both members of the OpenGov Hub. The project
was supported by a 1234 hotline, manned by volunteers based at the Nepalese Home Ministry. It was
also supported by a SMS toll free platform managed by a private company (Sparrow SMS). The actual
Mobile Citizen Helpdesks were run by volunteers in Kathmandu and the 10 worst hit districts in Nepal.
They were led by district coordinators. The aim of the project was to facilitate a two-way flow of
information: Mobile Citizen Helpdesks monitored the overall response and gathered information at
the local level. They then used these insights to help local people obtain information they needed
and/or to explain the decisions donors and the Nepalese government had taken. By looking at
resource mobilization and spending at the hyper-local level, and by helping individuals and
communities solve specific problems as and when needed, the project aimed to build accountability
from the bottom-up over time.
Formal responders and crowdsourced crisis data
In the aftermath of a disaster, responders need to develop the situational awareness required to
target their actions effectively at those most in need. This means that they need access to up-to-date
information on the population, the physical lay-out of the affected areas and the location of vital
infrastructure and services. It also means that they need information on what assistance is required
where and what has already been done (Stanton et al., 2001). International NGOs and IOs tend to
carry out their own assessments, often with the aid of local organizations. However, doing so takes a
lot of time. When we conducted fieldwork in Nepal, six weeks after the earthquakes had struck, we
found that there were still areas that had not yet been assessed. Official records are not always
available, complete or up to date. In many developing countries urban areas morph rapidly and
organically, often without formal registration or in ways that do not correspond with official planning.
As such, official maps of affected areas - and datasets listing services by location - tend to go out of
date quickly. Furthermore, official datasets may also reflect local societal inequalities. Vulnerable
communities may never have formally registered their existence with local government bodies and,
as such, be absent from official records (Boersma et al., 2016). During our fieldwork in Nepal, we found
that members of the Dalit or ‘untouchable’ community were absent from some of the local
government records (I)NGOs used to organize the distribution of aid.
Given the potential shortcomings of official records and the time it takes to carry out independent
assessments, crowdsourced crisis data could play a vital role in helping formal responders develop the
situational awareness they need during the early phases of a response (Hughes and Tapia, 2015).
Formal responders have recognized this potential but sociotechnical difficulties have so far prevented
them from adopting crowdsourced data into their practice (Sutton 2010; Latonero and Shklovski 2011;
Hughes and Palen 2012; Tapia and Moore 2014). One important problem is the fact that the policies
and procedures of formal humanitarian organizations are generally not designed to incorporate an
overwhelming flow of data from outside their networks (United Nations Foundation 2011).
Humanitarian organizations have established routines for collecting and processing crisis data.
Crowdsourced crisis data often does not ‘fit’ naturally into these processes: it is not provided at the
time or in the format organizations need (Hughes and Tapia, 2015). Given the high stakes and short
time frame for making decisions in the aftermath of a disaster, many responders end up relying on
data processes that are familiar (Darcy et al., 2013; Zook et al., 2010). Some grassroots open data
activists have sought to address this through the semi-formal organization of crowdsourcing
volunteers (e.g. requiring people to sign-up prior to volunteering) or through the use of mediators
(persons or organizations) that seek to link the efforts of volunteers with those of formal organizations
(Hughes and Tapia, 2015).
Another major issue that has stopped many formal responders from adopting crowdsourced crisis
data into their practice is the belief that this information is too unreliable to inform humanitarian
decision making (Mendoza et al. 2010; Vieweg et al. 2010; Tapia et al. 2011, 2013; Hughes and Palen
2012; Tapia and Moore 2014; Dailey and Starbird 2014). Emergency responders find it challenging to
verify and trust crowdsourced crisis data. Social media exchanges can, after all, result in the spread of
rumours. Rumours are especially likely to emerge when people in a crisis situation do not have access
to situational information that is timely, unambiguous and location specific (Oh et al., 2013). However,
social media exchanges have also the potential to be self-rectifying whereby ‘the crowd’ triangulates
and checks the data it collectively produces. Indeed, many crowdsourcing volunteers and open data
activists regard the work of identifying, challenging and correcting misinformation (and coaching
others to do the same) as a core task of online volunteer efforts in crises (Starbird and Palen, 2013).
Triangulation is done through both technical and organizational means, for example by ranking
contributors’ level of trustworthiness on the basis of the frequency and quality of their previous posts,
or on the basis of their affiliation to larger social networks (Palen et al. 2009; Mendoza et al. 2010).
Another approach is the use of ‘visible scepticism’ whereby community platform moderators do not
block - but publicly question - the reliability of crisis-information, using the crowd to triangulate its
validity (Dailey and Starbird, 2014). The capability to facilitate the use crowdsourcing for the ongoing
triangulation of crisis data is one of the strongest potential contributions of social media platforms to
a humanitarian response, for this would enhance the reliability of crisis datasets (Vieweg et al., 2008).
However, if people with relevant knowledge about affected regions can’t check the data that has been
posted about these areas due to physical and virtual barriers to access, the validity of the data-set as
a whole is negatively affected. This point highlights again the importance of ensuring that all affected
communities – including marginalized groups - are able to access and contribute to online crisis data.
The 2015 earthquakes in Nepal temporarily destabilized established power structures in Nepal.
Hundreds of foreign NGOs and international organizations flocked to the country to channel donor aid
into humanitarian relief work. The coordination of all these humanitarian actors was managed by the
United Nations as the national government was initially unable to take on this role. The aftermath of
the disaster constituted a liminal period during which time these (inter)national NGOs and
(inter)national organizations (re)discovered and (re)negotiated their national and local positions of
power vis a vis the established power structures through which they were required to carry out their
work. In this situation of ongoing change and flux, affected communities had to organize their own
local response and locate external aid, both as informal responders and as people in need of
Humanitarian organizations aim to target aid on the basis of need alone “regardless of the race, creed
or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind”, as outlined in the Red
Cross Code of Conduct1
, to which 587 humanitarian organizations are signatories. In practice this
means that most humanitarian agencies aim to identify those most in need and target their (always
1 The Code of Conduct can be viewed here: http://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/code-of-conduct/code-english.pdf
limited) resources at these groups. As such, the temporary shift in power from established power
structures to the NGOs and (inter)national organizations that sometimes occurs in the aftermath of a
major disaster, could in theory create the political space needed to empower marginalized groups.
This potential is further strengthened by the perceived absence of social divisions between affected
groups during this liminal period. When a major disaster strikes all socio-economic groups tend regard
themselves as part of the same ‘disaster community’ and break out of their socially stratified isolation
(Solnit, 2010). We learned that in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal,
Kathmandu families from very different socio-economic backgrounds had lived in the same tents,
sharing their experiences and helping each other.
During this liminal period it might hence be possible to forge enduring connections between different
communities and link marginalized groups up with (online) networks. This would build their social
capital and boost their resilience in the face of future calamities. As such, disasters offer an
opportunity for building the assets and capabilities of marginalized groups. However, the remnants
and legacy of the old status quo present a number of real barriers and obstacles that make
empowerment at times of crisis far from straight forward. In the example of Nepal, we found that
even though formal power structures had been shaken and were in a state of flux, historic socio-
economic inequalities persisted and influenced the humanitarian response. Inequalities in resources,
skills and connections meant that marginalized groups were disproportionately underrepresented in
crisis data sets, be they government data sets, NGO data sets or crowdsourced data sets. This absence
meant that there were less visible to responders and hence less likely to be targeted with aid. Historic
processes of in and exclusion meant that even in the absence of fixed formal power structures,
marginalized groups still faced barriers that prevented them from accessing resources and information
that – to all intents and purposes - was intended for them. After all, humanitarian organizations
wanted to target those most in need and open data platforms wanted their information to be
accessible to all. The challenge reformers faced was to use the opportunity provided by the collapse
of the old status quo to overcome and address vulnerabilities that were the product of the old power
In spite of the challenges involved in including marginalized groups in the creation and use of online
crisis information – and in getting formal responders to systematically include this data in their
information processes - social media remains a strong tool for rectifying historic vulnerabilities and
enabling the agency of affected communities. Access to information and contacts makes it possible
for local people to take a leading role in organizing their own self-help and organizing relief work
within their local communities. This is vital because at times of crisis people are often forced to be
self-reliant, especially in the developing world where governments may lack the capacity to provide
assistance to all affected communities. This paper includes examples of concrete ways in which people
have attempted to address the issue of physical and virtual divides, i.e. by using low-tech ICT tools and
through the use of local focal points and community outreach volunteers.
Crowdsourcing crisis data through social media allows for the rapid creation of data sets that contain
‘live’ information about the changing situation and needs on the ground. This is of great value, as it is
an enormous challenge to satisfy the information needs of humanitarian responders in the aftermath
of a major crisis. As outlined above, official data sets are not always complete or up to date and
carrying out independent assessments takes a long time. Crowdsourced crisis data could addres this
information gap. It could also play a vital role in enabling formal responders to evaluate, interpret and
contextualize other (developing) datasets especially during the early phases of a response (Hughes
and Tapia, 2015). Community crowdsourcing platforms have not yet been incorporated into the
information processes used by humanitarian responders. However, many are looking for ways to
incorporate this innovation in their approach (e.g. OCHA, UNICEF (Batty 2010), the UN Logistics Base
and the IOM (Soden, 2014)). It is important to flag up that the shared efforts of formal responders and
open data activists to systematically include crowdsourcing data in their information processes, will
only enable responders to identify and target those most in need – and boost the resilience of
vulnerable groups – if proactive efforts are made to enable the participation of marginalized
communities in the creation and sharing of crisis data.
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