Saturday, April 2, 2011

Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

I was at the DIHAD 2011 conference in Dubai this week. The theme of the conference was "New Technologies:  How these impact humanitarian and development operations."[1]  Here is an expanded version of talk I gave as part of a panel.  A copy of the slide deck is on my web site at

Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

I have three take-aways for this paper, which I’d like to state up-front, so you know my intentions from the outset. 

1)      Technology capacity building for the vulnerable needs to be clear about audience and intention (and beware of unintended consequences)
2)      The most important participants on the team are the beneficiaries, and the most relevant technologies are the ones that beneficiaries adopt
3)      The prophets and the priests of technology can learn from each other (assuming both distance and proximity)

I propose these three points as my theses for which I invite your debate.

A 2x2 Lens

When I was in graduate school, I heard a lecture by a visiting professor on “Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Civil Religion.”  He proposed a matrix with dimensions of style (priestly or prophetic ) versus transcendence (national-self or deity)[2].   He went on to suggest that a colleague was in the self-transcendent, prophetic cell, and the debate was off and running.  The dialog between the prophetic and the priestly voices was not lost on me.

This was my first introduction to the 2-by-2 matrix lens for looking at complex issues, something our consulting colleagues remind us in each presentation; that no business school student can graduate without mastering.  So being a student of business and humanitarian organizations, I propose applying this approach to the currently lively area of social media and humanitarian work.

To make sense of the landscape I propose a simple paradigm of intention versus audience with examples from recent events.

Figure 1 – Two Kinds of Two Kinds of Social Media

It is useful to ask who are the audience, who are the speakers, and what are their intentions?
In our desire to embrace technology we often forget that a tool is an extension of purpose; and that the same tool can be used to harm as to cultivate.  Related to this is the reminder that the enthusiasm of individuals doesn’t always connect with the work of organizations, and the reverse is also true, especially when it involves a change in technology mindset.  The guardians or “priests” of technology are often at odds with the “prophets.”

Good Intentions and Individuals

Let’s look at these one at a time.  The on-line community that has formed around tools like Ushahidi ( has made it possible for the technology-skilled to help when a disaster occurs.  The availability of cheap, easy to access tools makes possible a new category of volunteering.  Whether in Haiti, where survivor information was aggregated and mapped, or Japan where responder and journalist information were the primary sources, it is the processing of data by volunteers that provides a new view of the post-disaster situations.  And this information is being produced and interpreted faster than ever before.  In Japan, by day 5, OpenStreetMap community had mapped nearly 3,000 data points[3].  These are good intentions by a crowd of individuals. 

The Uncultured Project (, founded and led by Shawn Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, was inspired by a speech made by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs (author of “The End of Poverty”).   His project shows the power of one individual when connected to the social media. Shawn is one of the top five viewed video-bloggers on YouTube talking about global poverty, with over 2.2M views.[4]   He has appealed to his generation of YouTubers to help rebuild a school in Bangladesh whose roof was blown off by Cyclone Sidr[5].  Shawn tries to engage his audience on awareness of global poverty, and gives the poor a voice through social media.

Good Intentions and Organizations

Shifting the focus to organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) SMS project in Haiti is an interesting case.  RCRC partnered with Trilogy Partners who own Voila, one of the largest cell phone providers in Haiti, to develop an innovative application that allows sending targeted SMS messages to beneficiaries in Port au Prince.  The application uses a Google Maps mash-up to allow “drawing a circle” around an RCRC center and selected cell phone towers, and sending information relevant for that center and location.  Some of the statistics are impressive:

  • 6 million SMS sent during 7 days disaster preparedness campaign
  • 385,000 messages received per day in PaP & Artibonite
  • 1.1 million "early warning" SMS ahead of hurricane Tomas storm surges
  • 2.1 million Cholera health SMS sent
  • 800,000 calls in September to a toll-free *733 IVR info-base 

Two points to highlight about this data: first, it is using actionable information: to come to a vaccination center, avoid a storm surge or call for information about what to do about cholera. Second, it places the beneficiary in the center of the communication with a connection means that they had already adopted: the inexpensive cell phone.

The future potential of this application is to look to beneficiaries to be a part of the assessment team on the front-end, and invite beneficiaries to rate and comment on the services we provide on the back-end.  Imagine a client-centered approach to disaster management with the beneficiary at the center.

Bad Intentions and Individuals

Turning to the darker side, we can see examples of social media being used for ill-will rather than good-will.  The students who embraced Facebook and other social networking sites are not immune.  The defunct student trashing site JuicyCampus is the notable case in point[6].  However, even Facebook users have not been spared.

The Sports Illustrated story on C.J. Johnson, the American high school football star, provides some interesting reading[7].  It appears some over-zealous fans attempted influence his college choice by posing as another school and trashing his mother.  His farewell post to Facebook is a reminder that the good intentions on a social network paragon can be quickly soured:

"This is my last Facebook post and I'm gonna leave facebook with this. Linda Johnson [his mom]  has never worked as a house worker making 100,000 dollars a year and I will not be a Mississippi state bulldog and I'm not considering Mississippi state anymore bc you have constantly comment on my page send me crazy inboxes and has made my recruiting experience a living nightmare. Goodbye facebook.[8]"

Bad intentions and Organizations

When we turn to organizations, intentions gone bad can become even more sinister.  Take for example the Texas Border Patrol site that invites citizens to watch web-cams and report suspicious activity[9].  That may seem like an amusing example of neighbors spying on neighbors.  However, Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard University law professor, suggests that governments could use the same crowd-sourcing principles to identify protestors[10].

These examples are a reminder that technology is a useful tool, but the intentions of the users gives it its quality.  In this sense, there is no such thing as “good” technology, no matter how popular.

The Problem of Unintended Consequences

Perhaps a footnote in this paradigm is the adage that even the best intentions can go astray.  When a disaster occurs, people of compassion want to know what they can do to help.  Some give money, some time and others lend their talents.  The technology community is no exception.  With the proliferation of free tools and a virtual community, it is possible for IT savvy people to help without leaving their desks.

As one would expect, a key message of the DIHAD 2011 conference is that we all believe in the potential of technology applied to disaster response.  Yet there has been an explosion of technology and data over the past few years, from on-line volunteers to beneficiaries on mobile phones.  Now we are hearing the message that we are drowning in data and need help sorting it out.  It is as if the cry from those on the front lines is “don’t give us something we can’t use!” It has led some to question whether the information that is being so readily provided on crowd-sourced maps, burgeoning text messages, and ubiquitous email is actionable: can we discern the most important information and act on it?[11]  In the world of growing information, we need to be able to separate the interesting from the useful.  This may be a noble assignment for our crowd-sourcing colleagues to undertake.

The Need to Bridge the Prophet-Priest Divide

To return to the source of my title, it may be worth asking: in the world of technology, who are the priests and who are the prophets?  History provides memorable examples of how the guardians of technology are often the last to see and adopt the change.  The IBM PC in the early 1980’s is an excellent case in point.  It was banned, resisted and then accepted as only a “dumb” terminal by CIOs who were quick to point out its meager power and lack of security.  The cell phone is another example, failing to meet AT&T’s minimum quality for voice even after it had supplanted the landline phone as the dominant consumer communication technology.   It just may be that if you ride horses all day, you tend to look at traveling as a bridle path.

In an interview in CIO Magazine, Clay Christensen points out the challenge:

“Cloud computing—any computing over the Internet—just isn't as good as enterprise computing. It's not as secure, not as fast, not as reliable as your internal network.  But like all disruptions, it's getting bigger and better.  As it does, it pulls applications, one by one, out of the corporate network into its world.”[12] 

If the priests of technology are the CIOs, then this warning of disruptive innovations at our doorsteps is something the priests don’t want to hear.

The resistance is not limited to the domain of CIOs.  In a wonderful summary of critiques, Anand Giridharadas writes of questioning that I doubt the prophets of new technology will want to hear:

“James Gleick is asking whether information has become the new crack. Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell are asking whether it really is the case… that more Internet always means more freedom and openness. Nicholas Carr is asking whether we are losing our powers of reading and writing. Scientists around the world are asking what this new oxygen of constant connectedness does to our brains.”[13]

All of this applies to disaster relief and preparedness.  We in the humanitarian community are ripe for disruption.  I asked Clay Christensen during a roundtable a few years ago whether he knew of a case where an established company was able to embrace disruptive innovation within the organization.  He thought for a minute and said “no.”[14]  It may be that the best we can do is support and amplify the efforts outside our walls that are succeeding, and we would do well to send our new world technology pilots to the far country.

Can the prophets of technology hear such critiques as the CIOs must pay attention to the disruptions in our midst?  If ever there was an invitation to more dialog, this is it.

Questions to Consider

So I invite you, the technology leaders in humanitarian organizations and the technology volunteers knocking at our doors to sit down at the same table with a healthy dose of beginners’ mind.  

To start the discussion, here are eight questions about information technology in disasters posed by Paul Conneally, an IFRC colleague:[15]

  1. Relevance: Is it actionable?
  2. Verification and authentication: Is it true? Is it a hoax?
  3. Duplication: Has this already been dealt with?
  4. Access: Do the most vulnerable have the tools?
  5. Privacy: Is confidentiality respected? What are the security risks?
  6. Expectations: Are we creating unrealistic expectations?
  7. Impact:  Can we convert data into aid delivery?
  8. Proximity: Do we understand the new proximity dynamics?

Even if we work out the answers to all our satisfaction, the success criteria will remain: what gets adopted in the field, by those on the front-lines in disaster relief, and by the first responders who they serve: the beneficiaries.  We can have the best intentions in the world, but if it does not have impact in the most vulnerable places in the world, it will go for naught.

I leave you with two stories.  This one is from a journalist in a refugee shelter in Northern Japan following the earthquake and tsunami that reminds us that we need to work together:

A barber “was giving free haircuts on Thursday with scissors and a razor borrowed from a friend in a nearby town. “We have to support each other,’ he said, ‘and this is what I know how to do.”[16]

The second is a photo I took in one of the poorest communities in Manila. A young girl wandered in from the street while I was taking photos in a day care center and wanted to be a part of the action. 

It was not until I returned to the US and enlarged the photo that I noticed that she was holding a dozen bottle-caps in her left hand.  These were her toys for the day.  This was a poignant lesson for me on three counts:

  1. Simple, basic toys are good enough
  2. She brought her toys with her to the center
  3. She had already adopted these toys as hers

Now change the word “toys” to “technologies”.  Connections with people, where they are, with what they use, is the most important thing. We would do well to remember this when designing technology for disaster response and preparedness.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

[1] See , last accessed 2 April 2011.  I also gave an abbreviated version of this presentation at the Geneva Forum for Social Change, 2 April 2011,
[2] James A. Mathisen, "Twenty Years After Bellah: Whatever Happened to American Civil Religion?" Sociological Analysis, 1989, 50:2 129-146, Wheaton College, Illinois (citation on p. 133),
“Members of the Japanese OpenStreetMap community launched an Ushahidi platform for Japan just hours after the devastating earthquake struck the country. Less than 24 hours later, Japanese students at The Fletcher School in Boston (where the Ushahidi-Haiti project was run last year) mobilized to support the Tokyo-based crisis mapping project. Today, almost 3,000 individual reports have been mapped on the platform.”  --Patrick Meier, 16 Mar 11
[5] See Shawn’s video on the Bangladesh projects, here:
[9] See  Also see the article "Innovation: The sinister powers of crowdsourcing”, New Scientist,  22 December 2009 by MacGregor Campbell,
[10] Also see coments about Zittrain’s warning in “Reality Crashes the Technocrats' Party,” By Anand Giridharadas, International Herald Tribune, March 26, 2011; 
[11] See Paul Currion’s thought-provoking article “If all You Have is a Hammer - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?”, Oct 20, 2010,
[12] “What CIOs Get Wrong About Emerging Technology”, interview with Clay Christensen, By Kim S. Nash, CIO magazine, December 15, 2009,
[13] “Reality Crashes the Technocrats' Party,” by Anand Giridharadas, International Herald Tribune , March 26-27, 2011,
[14] ILO Institute Conference, Boston MA, April 25, 2008
[15] Paul Conneally, “Digital Disasters: How new technologies are transforming humanitarian aid for the better”,  a presentation at the LIFT 11 conference in Geneva, 03 Feb 2011,
[16] “Quiet bravery, and hot tubs , for refugees”, by Michael Wines, International Herald Tribune , March 26-27, 2011,

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