It’s been six days since an earthquake ravaged Nepal, covering the capital city of Kathmandu in rubble, dust, and bodies. Over 5,800 have been confirmed dead due to the earthquake and many more are expected to be added to the list. People continue to be pulled from the piles of broken concrete and brick.
Along with an instantaneous mobilization of aid forces in the area, the techsphere responded to the earthquake with new apps and features to raise money and to help victims of the devastation. Facebook launched a check in service for survivors that allow them to broadcast their status as ‘safe’ on their timelines. Google implemented a person finder app on their site that lets users post information if they are looking for a missing person or if they have information on someone who may be missing. And Air BnB has included an option to let users in Nepal offer their homes for free to victims looking for safe spaces to sleep and recover.
These are all noble pursuits but they are both unwieldy and unchecked. Google’s person finder, for instance, is only scanning about 7600 reports of missing persons. With the casualty count in Nepal being upwards of 30,000, 7600 reports is only skimming the surface of the devastation. Users can also text in to the service in India, Nepal, and the US and find information about one specific person at a time. Yet the lack of reports on the site even six days later points to a gap between usage and utility. This service may not have been broadcasted well enough or, probably more likely, people don’t have access to the tech they would need to post about missing people.
Nepal is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2012 only 9.0% of the Nepalese population used the Internet. This is probably due simply to a lack of access to the Internet and other instruments of technology. It doesn’t make sense, then, to offer so many resources online. These tech solutions haven’t been adapted for Nepal and are only a cut and paste attempt at humanitarian response.
Google’s person finder, again, has a disclaimer: “All data entered will be available to the public and viewable and usable by anyone. Google does not review or verify the accuracy of this data.” These apps run on user-generated content and there’s no discernable way for Google or Facebook to certify their reports in Nepal. During times of conflict and disaster, fake fundraising campaigns are often created to take advantage of the climate of generosity. Without verification, these apps and tech solutions to the earthquake may also be taken advantage of. Nepal is already vulnerable and these apps may be offering another way to harm victims.
Though the tech response to Nepal is admirable and well intended, it isn’t doing enough in the right way. Tech solutions need to be adapted to the country they work in — if Nepal doesn’t use the Internet enough to warrant internet-only apps, then other solutions should be offered up. It is of course better to do something rather than nothing, but these apps are half-hearted in their mobility and capability.
What these tech solutions are, though, are the seeds of future humanitarian response. Being able to conduct surveys of missing people or allowing potential victims to check in to Facebook, where all their friends and family are notified in one fell swoop, is a good concept for humanitarian response in a future world where Internet is made widely available. Until then, our efforts should be focused on ensuring basic needs are met in Nepal and that there are enough tangible resources like food, water, and shelter to go around.