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World: Technology Speeds Flow Of Information, Aid For Tsunami Catastrophe

  • Jeremy Bransten

The Internet and mobile phones are playing an unprecedented role in the wake of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. Within hours of the tragedy, eyewitness accounts and appeals for help began to appear on the Internet, which is proving its worth as a source of information not only for affected residents, travelers, and relatives, but for charities and governments as well. Technology is also helping to coordinate the tsunami rescue efforts and raise funds -- at a speed never before seen.

Prague, 3 January 2005 -- It's a truly international disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of people across 11 countries have been directly affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami -- and thousands of others around the world are awaiting news from missing friends and relatives.

But thanks to a truly global medium -- the Internet -- coordinating the flow of information and aid to this vast region is being made much easier.

After the tsunami hit, many "bloggers" -- people who maintain sites on the Internet devoted to discussions of news, politics, sports, or whatever -- turned their web pages into clearinghouses for news about the disaster.

One such site (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com), run by a group in Bombay, India, has become a vast forum where messages from both survivors and those searching for friends and relatives are constantly updated.

The great advantage of the Internet is that the information posted can be accessed by anyone with a connection -- regardless of location.

Last week, a Swedish toddler who survived the tsunami was reunited with his father in Thailand, after his uncle back in Sweden spotted a photo of the 18-month-old on a website.

Charities trying to raise relief money have also been quick to take advantage of the Internet.

British-based web consultant Ashley Friedlein said that for charity organizations, Internet fundraising can be far cheaper than telephone campaigns or mailed appeals. For potential donors -- especially in wealthier regions such as Europe -- the Internet is an ideal medium as it is always accessible without being disruptive. Information is just a click away, as is the option of donating money through credit-card debiting.
Charities trying to raise relief money have been quick to take advantage of the Internet.


"One of the big benefits of the Internet is that most people now -- I think it's around 50 percent of people [in Britain] -- have access to the Internet at home and 30 percent at least at work, and that's growing all the time," Friedlein said. "And that's 24 hours a day, so when people are busy it's harder for them to give. But in evening moments, or at the weekends, when they've got a little bit more time and can focus on these things, then that channel is always there as a route for giving-- which is not necessarily the case by post or over the phone."

A newer and even more accessible way to raise money is through SMS text-message appeals.

The idea is simple. Each text message is assigned a monetary value through an agreement by the charity and the mobile phone operator. When an individual donor sends a message to the charity, it receives an automatic donation and the donor is charged a corresponding fee.

The fact that even more people have access to mobile phones around the world than the Internet has made this an ever-more popular way to fundraise. It is now being used around the world, but especially in Europe where most people regularly use text messaging.

The Czech charity ADRA, which is raising money for tsunami victims through text messages, has been overwhelmed by the response. Since ADRA launched its appeal last week, it has received nearly 500,000 text messages, representing more than $500,000 in aid.

ADRA's Vitezslav Wurst spoke to RFE/RL from Prague.

"The campaign has been incredible," Wurst said. "At the current moment, an average of one text message comes through every second, which means almost 100,000 crowns ($4,300) per hour."

Wurst explained how ADRA launched the text-messaging idea.

"This charity text-messaging project was launched by the 'Donors' Forum,' which is an organization that groups all the major charities in the Czech Republic," Wurst said. "As an organization that represents many foundations, the Donors' Forum opened negotiations with the country's mobile-phone operators and a joint project was created, which allowed people to donate money by sending text messages."

Wurst said that text messaging has the potential to revolutionize how charities fundraise. But the campaign has to be planned carefully.

"In order for such a project to be successful, you need to have several elements," Wurst said. "The media have to be partners because without any publicity in the media, no project like this can be successful -- you end up only addressing a small group of people and that's the end of the effort. The next group that helped us a lot was all the Internet servers that displayed our banner on their Internet pages. Everyone that clicks on our banner on the Internet finds out about the option of making a text-message donation. So it's important to secure media publicity. Once you have that, you need to ensure transparency. This is essential, so that the public and your partners can be sure they are dealing with a serious project."

That is indeed important. Because anyone can send a text message or e-mail, the potential for misuse also exists.

In Britain, police say they have arrested a man who sent e-mails to relatives of missing Britons, falsely informing them their kin had died in the tsunami.
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