Social media, community
and the Typhoon Yolanda response
By Jon Malek
It was absolutely devastating to watch as Typhoon Yolanda made its quick yet destructive pass over the Philippines and social media enabled us to watch it unfold in real time. Very initial reports of the Typhoon suggested that little damage might have been done because of the speed with which the storm passed the Philippines, although now we know the inaccuracy of these reports. Almost immediately following the typhoon, images, web posts, and online pleas for assistance were sent out, not only from first responders to the crisis, but from those directly affected by it. We might remember, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the images released in the media of stranded people on their rooftops with signs requesting help (a simple search on your search engine of choice will return such images). Flash forward eight years to Typhoon Yolanda, and websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have offered viewers real-time coverage of events as they occurred. The Philippines is no stranger to Typhoons, but the build up to Yolanda indicated that something particularly strong was coming. As the storm approached, I watched my Twitter feeds, and constantly ‘refreshed’ my online news pages: CTV news, the BBC, CNN, the Inquirer, and ABS-CBN were my main sources. The speed with which viewers around the world were updated was astounding; whereas ten years ago, such accounts would have taken hours or days to come out in detail, they now appeared fast and with alarming detail. As we all witnessed the devastation, social media also gave us tools to directly help those in need.
As news of the destruction came out, my immediate concern was my wife’s family in the Philippines: one does not have to be Filipino to care deeply about the country, after all, or to feel a strong connection to the community. To find this out, I turned to Facebook and, as I looked for the status of our family, I was struck by the amount of Facebook posts on the Typhoon. For those following this story, the problems that have been encountered in delivering aid to where it is needed is well-known, but in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, something else incredible and even uplifting was happening on these social media websites: the coming together of the digital Filipino community and the “crowd sourcing” of relief efforts. Crowd sourcing is a relatively recent phenomenon on the Internet, where projects are put online and visitors to these websites are able to contribute their assistance in a variety of ways. The most talked about of these are known as crowd sourced funding, where people can donate money to certain projects on websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but this is not the only way that crowd sourcing is changing the way communities work.
One of the most interesting convergences of crowd sourcing and Typhoon Yolanda was my encounter with “MicroMappers.” This project was publicized on the Facebook page of Rappler, an alternative media outlet from the Philippines, emphasizing the role that social media has in spreading awareness of these projects. The goal of MicroMappers was to help the United Nations identify ‘crisis tweets,’ a message posted to the website Twitter by victims of Typhoon Yolanda, or people who had knowledge of the crisis. Online users from across the globe could log on to this website, and help the United Nations decide which ‘Tweets’ were pleas for assistance, and which were other messages not related to relief efforts or needs. The product of this project allowed United Nations care workers in the Philippines to decide where help was needed, and to identify immediate crisis zones. Thus, those who did not have money available to donate to relief efforts could still donate something to the relief effort in the Philippines in a real way. There are three ‘Ts’ to charity: Time, Treasure, and Talent. Not everyone has money to contribute, but by allowing users to help in such a way, MicroMappers allowed people around the world to donate their time and Internet ability to help on the ground response teams.
In such a devastating time, people in the Winnipeg community have been given numerous opportunities to help. Local fundraisers in response to calamities are nothing new, but the ability to spread the information of these projects has increased, thanks to free websites like Facebook. Who knew that a network of Facebook friends and “Likes” could be so useful? On my own Facebook, I have encountered a number of Winnipeg fundraisers organized by the Filipino community to assist the relief efforts in the Philippines, many that you no doubt also have seen if you are on Facebook. And, to take a step back from this calamity, one might reflect on the impact of technology today in connecting us with friends and family. How many of us have a Facebook or Skype account, or something similar that allows us to keep in touch with family members abroad in an instant? I have always been amazed at the strength of the Filipino community’s bonds with friends and family ‘back home’ in the Philippines. If we look at the networks on Facebook, we see that Filipinos in Winnipeg have connections with people not only in Canada and the Philippines, but the world around. The Internet and websites like Facebook and Skype, or instant messengers like Windows Messenger, Yahoo! Messengers, and others, have allowed communication with the people we care about the world over to be instantaneous. This is not only a trivial part of our lives, but is in fact a significant part of community building that extends the world over.
Events in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda continue to play out and, although the story may have disappeared in the mainstream media, the need for relief remains. My heart and my prayers continue to go out to those affected by this tragedy, and I know that the community will continue to do what is necessary and possible to help.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org