Why so few turn to the web in an emergency
The Worldwide Web can handle thousands of queries simultaneously and be updated every minute if need be. In the developed world it is used by between 60 and 70 per cent of people. Yet in times of crisis it is still all but ignored as an information medium
|Government of Thailand||Ministry of public health, Thailand|
|UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office||BP|
|Highland, Western Isles and Moray councils|
I have followed the web coverage of several disasters in the last year, partly because there have been more than usual, and partly because I wanted to see whether people were realising the potential of the world’s biggest noticeboard. It should not need huge imagination. When something dramatic happens, you need to get information to as many people as possible. Telephone is hopeless at that because it is a one-to-one medium; radio used to be the answer, and still works for local problems. But only the web can get very detailed, fast-updated information out to millions of people at the same time.
How it has been done
I kept an eye on government sites late last December in the aftermath of the East Asia tsunami. Most posted a phone number quickly, but it took a week or so before much practical information was published. Yet within a day the Thai government site was displaying a link to a special section, in Thai and English, that listed names of victims. Two days later, the ministry of public health (ems.narenthorn.or.th) was providing long lists with names, nationality and status. Shortly after that, the site linked to individual hospital sites, where lists of victims, people in care and those who had been discharged were available on spreadsheets.
The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was criticised in a recent report for its poor performance last December. Its telephone switchboard was jammed, it said, because only 36 call centre operators were available to staff it. Think what would have happened had worried relatives and friends in Europe and the US turned first to their computers last December, and governments had all matched Thailand’s approach. They would have been given all the information available as quickly as possible, and great pressure would have been taken off the official phone helplines. People without access to the internet could have rung, of course, but they would have had a much better chance of getting through.
Cultural barrier to be overcome
Many governments have been pushing electronic delivery of services hard, and I can now go to my local authority’s website to tell it if I’m missed by the weekly rubbish collection. Yet most people will still pick up the phone or, more likely, sigh and wait until next week. They have internet access, so why do they not turn first to the web? The reason, surely, is the same one that kept the FCO switchboard jammed. Neither suppliers of information (government) nor its consumers (relatives or citizens) think of the web first. We live in a telephone culture. It will change, should change, but will take time and could do with some help.
Evidence from this year’s disasters shows some small shifts in the right direction. Individuals in the most wired countries already think in terms of the web; the private sector is making moves; and government… well, there are a few hopeful indicators.
People and businesses first
Proof that the individual is way ahead of government came when Hurricane Katrina swept across the US gulf states in August. Even as the winds howled, forums were clogged by people asking for or giving news. It was like CB radio, but on a vast scale. Soon special sites – again built by individuals – appeared to help people find their friends and relatives. This was a high point, albeit a sad one, for the web, yet neither state nor federal government took any significant part in it.
A few businesses have showed their readiness. BP suffered a number of crises in the US during the year, including a fatal explosion on 23 March at the Texas City refinery and a series of hurricanes that battered its facilities. In each case it triggered a special site within hours to provide information to locals and give them an easy way to ask questions. The site (see bpresponse.org for the Texas City one) is run separately from bp.com, and is designed to handle large traffic volumes – exactly what governments needed after the tsunami or Katrina.
To finish on those small signs that government may be changing. Back in January, there was a crisis in Scotland – violent storms were causing havoc, flood warnings were issued and schools were closing. Some – not many – local government bodies used their websites as noticeboards. Highland Council advised that “if wheelie [refuse] bins are due for collection today, residents are advised to use their judgement as to whether it is safe to leave them out”. Western Isles and Moray councils both gave lists of which schools would be closed as a result of the weather. Trivial in comparison with the tsunami or Katrina, but they provided a useful service – and took pressure off the switchboards.
So, what is to be done? How can we get everyone thinking ‘web first’? Old-fashioned public information campaigns would seem to be the answer – run by governments, though any number of companies would, I am sure, be delighted to fund them. They would have to be on television, newspapers and billboards, of course. Not the web – who would think to look there?
First published on ft.com 9.12.05
First published on 14 December, 2005