Michael Gurstein on Sat, 1 Jan 2005 20:26:05 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Southeast Asia Tsunami and the Effective Use of Community ICTs

I guess like everyone else I've been watching the tragic events unfold
on television with a sense of sadness and powerlessness.  Not much that
one can do from so far away except at this point to make a donation and
to make the kinds of noises that get governments to move away from
Fortunately my family and I weren't personally impacted so far as we
know, but the events took on a very direct force when we saw what seemed
to be video from a resort in Thailand where we had stayed 3 years ago
and which indicated that the bungalow where we were staying would have
been completely inundated by the wave.

And thinking of it and scanning the Net for information and for stories
I'm struck by a couple of things concerning the role (and lack of role)
of the Net in these events.  The Net appears to be playing a very
significant part in responding to the needs of those at a distance--the
on-lookers for information, stories, ways of contributing and so on;
families and friends of those possibly impacted with attempts at
creating listings of the found and the lost and for those on the ground
to manage the concerns and queries of those farther away; and one
expects that behind the scenes much of the co-ordination and planning
that is being done by aid organizations is being done in ways that are
pushing the boundaries of Computer Mediated Communication and managing
at a distance.

But I guess I'm a bit surprised that the Net wasn't able (yet?) to
bridge the information divides between those who had some idea about
what might be coming (the scientists and those immediately impacted) and
those who might have been able to make some use of that information in
the places where the impact took appreciable time to be realized.  

The problem here was not, I think a "the Digital Divide" rather, perhaps
it is another example of what I've referred to elsewhere as the gap
between "access" and "effective use"
http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue8_12/gurstein/index.html.   From
what I can gather most if not all of the communities impacted had
Internet "access" in one form or another.  What they (and here I would
include those with the knowledge who couldn't use it as well as those
without knowledge) lacked rather, was the social, organizational,
informational, and applications infrastructure which could have turned
Internet access into an "effectively usable" early warning system.

Those who had the information couldn't use it, and those who needed the
information couldn't/didn't "get it".  The "degrees of separation"
imposed by nationality, language and perhaps most important, domains of
knowledge and profession (and the related social linkages, network based
trust relationships, communication pathways and so on), just weren't
there--and one wonders whether that was simply a matter of it still
being early days in our Internetted world or something more profound and

It seems likely that some sort of Tsunami Early Warning System will be
set up in the region probably with an ICT base (I seem to recall
something similar being in place for the Pacific Islands, for hurricanes
as well as Tsunami's I would assume), but given the infrequency of these
events, how useful it will be seems questionable.
So I'm wondering now whether rather than spending a huge amount of money
creating a dedicated Tsunami Early Warning System, the governments in
the region (or better yet the effected communities) wouldn't be better
advised to think about how to use the access that they have available to
them in ways that will allow them to have some warning. This would mean
that they develop local means for scanning the information universe and
then ways of linking the knowledge that results into local social and
institutional structures that can translate that knowledge into
effective uses such as early warnings and here I'm not thinking just of
what are almost singular events like Tsunamis but also of more recurrent
weather events and even more common social, economic and political
events in the larger world that will have a potential impact, sometimes
negative but also potentially positive on community well-being.

>From a Community Informatics perspective, I'm also wondering whether
there shouldn't be a significant future role. Certainly, the "Community"
side of the equation will be of immense importance as much of the
reconstruction will be done of and through existing local communities.
But what of the Informatics side.  Some skepticism has been expressed
concerning the value of ICTs in this context where the need for water,
shelter and food are so pressing.  Certainly, there is a need for
Management/Organizational Informatics at least from the perspective of
managing aid and a considerable degree of infrastructure reconstruction.

But what of "Community Informatics"... Is this something to be left to a
later stage when other matters have been dealt with and as has been
suggested there is some resources and time available for what some
regard as "recreational pursuits", or is it the case, as I have a sense,
that CI is something more important than that and should be built into
the communities directly as they are being re-constructed.  I'm thinking
for example of the need for communities to be able to self-organize and
self-manage their reconstruction, to access external resources but to
manage their deployment locally themselves.  I'm also thinking of the
probably increased need to create and maintain links with local diaspora
and local well-wishers as they are dispersed around the globe and can
act as sources of support as for example, through remittances.  I'm also
thinking of the as yet largely unrealized potential for leap-frogging
into community based ICT enabled health service, linkages for local
economic development, supports to re-building local school systems and
so on. 

And perhaps most important, what about the creation of the kind of
information and knowledge networks that would bind these communities,
many of which appear to be extremely isolated and with little
"communication" links into the larger world as ways of providing early
warnings of future such events.

Best to all for the New Year and particularly to those impacted by the
recent events.

Mike Gurstein  

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