New tools that empower journalists

Free and open digital tools like Google Drive and Twitter provide great opportunities for media organisations in times of crisis and natural disaster, writes Greg Barila.

greg barila headshot new york

Greg Barila is the social media editor at The Advertiser in Adelaide.

Helplessness is a horrible thing. The last time I had the feeling, in January 2015, I was sitting with mates in a villa in Bali, sipping on local beer and casually thumbing through news on Twitter when suddenly I discovered there was trouble at home. A huge bushfire was raging towards the Adelaide Hills.

Twitter was alive with urgent dispatches from emergency services, reporters on the ground and worried members of the public exchanging critical information and, in some cases, seeking help.

I felt powerless but, watching the drama unfold, realised there was something I could do to help, even 3700km away.

I opened the Google Drive app on my iPad, quickly created a new sheet that anyone could edit and set up columns for people to log their particulars and either requests for – or offers of – assistance.

Thankfully, my initiative was met warmly by the Twitterati. My tweet was shared widely and one correspondent told me how people had been calling local radio stations asking where they could find exactly the kind of information exchange I’d just created poolside from my holiday villa.

Within minutes, I was watching strangers key in offers of help – car trailers, non-perishable food items, meals and accommodation – row after row and in real time.

What I did to help was minuscule in the grander scheme of things. But my little intervention did get me thinking about the power of free, open digital tools and the potential for journalists and media organisations to mobilise in times of crisis to help their readers help each other.

“My little intervention did get me thinking about the power of free, open digital tools and the potential for journalists and media organisations to mobilise in times of crisis”

On that front, publishers could learn much from tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

These organisations have worked hard in the last decade to solve many of the critical communication problems people typically face in an emergency or natural disaster, through the development of free, simple and open source digital tools that help people quickly connect and share knowledge.

In 2010 in the wake of devastating earthquake in Haiti, Google engineers set about developing a simple online bulletin board to help people separated in a natural disaster re-connect.

The company has continued to make improvements to the “Person Finder” tool, which has been used following humanitarian crises in Japan, the Philippines and Nepal.

Facebook has also begun leveraging its technology platform and phenomenal global reach for the greater good.

In 2014, the company launched its “Safety Check” feature, which detects if a person is near the site of a disaster and sends a notification that lets them mark themselves and friends as “safe” for the benefit of worried friends and family members.

The tool has largely been used for natural disasters but was recently activated following the deadly terror attacks in Paris.

But while the big tech companies have all but won the race to these powerful communication tools, there is, I think, still a critical role for traditional media to leverage these tools in times of need or crisis.

Media organisations and high-profile journalists have attributes even Facebook can’t match; authority, the trust of their communities, connections on the ground, influence and local knowledge.

Media organisations and high-profile journalists have attributes even Facebook can’t match; authority, the trust of their communities, connections on the ground, influence and local knowledge.

Publishers and the technology platforms can, and should, be equal partners.

Following the 2010 Haiti disaster, Google worked with the US Department of State to embed its People Finder widget on official government websites and aggregated information compiled by trusted news brands including the Miami Herald, CNN and The New York Times.

The extent to which journalists should become involved in a story has long been a topic of debate.

But in a crisis or emergency, aren’t all reporters striving to do the one same thing; get accurate information to people who may need it, as quickly as possible?

In the digital age, that means going beyond traditional TV, print and radio formats.

Increasingly, it means live and rolling news blogs, tweets and Facebook posts, infographics, SMS alerts, interactive maps and editable spreadsheets.

For journalists it also means a new kind of power and flexibility to help people when they need it most. Even from your holiday villa.

Greg Barila is the social media editor at The Advertiser in Adelaide. You can follow him on Twitter @GregBarila and on Facebook at facebook.com/GregBarila.

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