5 September 2015
Lessons from uneven and unequal access to information during times of crisis.
Two months after the Nepal earthquake of 25 April 2015, Balram was selling mangoes and bananas from his bicycle in an affluent Kathmandu neighbourhood. He explained that he had returned to his family in Motihari, India, the day after the quake, where he also felt light tremors. To plan his return to Kathmandu, he listened to the news on Kantipur TV and Radio Nepal, and decided to go back after just ten days in India; he had to continue to earn his living. Immediately after his return, he experienced the large aftershock of 12 May. Now, he says the business remains light and he avoids the small galis with tall buildings as a safety precaution. He admits feeling concerned about the continual rumours that a bigger earthquake is yet to come. As no one could predict the first one, he says he does not know what to believe. However, he adds, he finds comfort in knowing that the truth is clear in god’s eyes.
Balram’s story highlights some of the strategies earthquake-affected people have used to make decisions about safety and livelihood. The abundance of rumours about an imminent, even larger earthquake indicates the uncertainty people have faced in the aftermath of the disaster. It also highlights the need for trustworthy information networks. Similar rumours were noted in the wake of other earthquake-related disasters, such as in Gujarat in 2001 and in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
Living in a seismically active zone means living with the probability of tremors, which cannot be scientifically predicted with much accuracy. As anthropologist Annemarie Samuels indicates in her research on the Indian Ocean tsunami, the difficulty of sorting fact from fiction as people confront unknowable futures can lead to circuits of rumour that reveal much about general social anxieties. Just as people needed information on basic safety measures and the state of infrastructure – especially roads and government relief measures – a number of governmental, international and civil-society organisations also worked to quickly gather data about the effects of the quake. The public life of the event in media and civil society suggests that despite many Nepalis’ current fascination with data and ‘transparent’ information, such initiatives cannot simply paper over inequalities and uneven access to information as a resource in contemporary society.
Government and data
Following the quake, the urgency of maintaining communication and reaching out to those in need was expressed by many in Nepal. Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), Kabiraj Khanal, highlighted the government’s efforts to ensure that telecommunications remained operational. He said the MIC had lobbied telecom providers to offer free phone calls during the crisis. The fact that jammed lines were widely reported after this announcement, however, diluted the effectiveness of this well-intentioned measure. Khanal also cited the government’s call centre as a successful public initiative. The centre, open 24 hours a day for the first three weeks, received 89,600 calls. The majority came from affected districts, such as Sindhupalchowk, Dolakha, Dhading and Gorkha. Callers were then transferred to appropriate local authorities.
The government was somewhat slower to offer help via the internet, especially for people seeking information about the earthquake. Even though social media has a narrow reach, confined to Kathmandu and other urban areas, for the first two weeks after the disaster, the Ministry of Home Affairs directed internet traffic to updates on the website of International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD. It was the foreign journalists, international observers and the Nepali diaspora that quickly created a large online presence on earthquake-related matters. It is thus reasonable to assume that they were the targeted audience for the online materials that the government subsequently developed.
On 1 June, the Home Ministry and ICIMOD released the Disaster Relief and Recovery Information Platform (DRRIP) “to deliver timely, credible, and actionable data and information for earthquake relief operations, and to support the recovery and rehabilitation efforts of the Government.” The web-based platform provides demographic and geophysical data, maps, infographics, needs assessment and information on relief organisations operating from the district to the Village Development Committee (VDC) level. According to Basanta Shrestha, Director of Strategic Cooperation at ICIMOD, the platform provides a standardised “complete picture at multiple levels”, and would become the government’s sole authority after about a month. While describing ICIMOD’s work on the platform as an effort to “promote information as a public good”, Shrestha emphasised that “whatever we do is to help government”.
An important feature of the platform, given the monsoon, is the geohazards page, which pinpoints reported landslides and ranks the risk level from low to high. In Manang district, for example, the map shows a number of hazards, such as the point where two landslides have blocked the Marshyangdi River, posing a ‘high’ level of risk. Manang’s Assistant Chief District Office Ram Hari Sharma, in response to our queries, replied that he was well aware of the DRRIP website, as it was an initiative of his own organisation, the Home Ministry. While speaking favourably of the initiative, Sharma said a situation had not yet arisen for him to use data on the web platform. Sharma cited patchy phone and internet connectivity as an obstacle to drawing upon such initiatives. When we contacted him on 30 June, his office had no internet access, and he guessed that the connectivity was unlikely to be back the following day. In Rasuwa district – which also had a number of landslides mapped on DRRIP’s geohazards page – the new Chief District Office (CDO), Shiva Gelal, told us that he was not particularly familiar with the DRRIP site, and that he found local sources of information to be the most useful. He thought that the police, the Armed Police Force and local people were the best sources of information on earthquake damage and geohazards in the district. Neither of the CDO offices was familiar with other websites containing earthquake-related information.
Across the airwaves
In comparison to internet-based platforms, far more Nepalis received news about the disaster from their radio sets. Radio stations shouldered a strong social responsibility, remaining on air to the greatest extent possible, even though about 100 local stations in 14 districts were damaged, according to the estimate of Ujyaalo FM’s Director Gopal Guragain. Approximately ten local stations were airing from tents as their buildings were damaged. About 70 percent are yet to be restored to full airtime. Some stations were so badly damaged that they may not be able to resume operations. As Guragain explained, his FM station only went off the air for several minutes following the quake. He had just landed at Tribhuwan International Airport from a trip abroad when the quake hit. His team at the studio, trained in disaster response by National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) and experts from Tribhuwan University, was already broadcasting messages to reassure people and remind them to stay calm, find open spaces and to refrain from panicking.
FM radio stations – which began operating on a privately-owned basis in Nepal in 1996, and were given the green light by government to broadcast their own news in 2001 – have been credited with democratising the media and promoting inclusive development. Immediately after the earthquake, stations broadcast public service announcements (PSAs), reported the growing number of casualties and the extent of damages. They suggested people to remain outside and take care of sanitation to avoid epidemics, and continually announced reports on aftershocks. Ujyaalo network’s PSAs provided the police hotline number and cautioned listeners against believing in unfounded predictions. Further, listeners were told to avoid Twitter and Facebook as sources of news, as rumours could easily spread via social media. Local stations even translated some of these announcements into regional languages. The radio messages that sought to dispel rumours had some success. As rumours of an even larger quake – said to hit at 11 pm on 25 April – circulated rapidly via word of mouth and social media, a middle-aged man taking shelter at the crowded football ground in Chyasal, Kathmandu, assured people that he had learned from the radio that no one could predict the exact time of an earthquake.
Other radio programmes focused on less immediate but still vital needs. Ujyaalo FM aired a very successful one-hour programme, ‘Man ka Sukha Dukha’, for 10 days, during which people would talk to trained counsellors on air. Questions for the counsellors were also gathered through phone calls and text messages. Ujyaalo’s 45-minute programme, ‘Nepal Kampan 2072’ (which has aired daily since the earthquake), has provided local coverage and takes call-in questions, with an estimated reach of up to five million listeners, as it is rebroadcast by many local stations throughout the country. Ujyaalo FM plans to air the programme for the next two years, with a focus on connecting policymakers with citizens, to track relief operations and encourage accountability. The programme will also continue to emphasise the need for local elections, after a hiatus of 18 years. Indeed, academics, journalists and the National Planning Commission’s Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report have cited the absence of locally elected representatives as a serious obstacle to facilitating equitable relief distribution.
Information and entrepreneurship
One of the main challenges after the disaster was to accurately find which areas had sustained the most damage, where people needed immediate relief, and how to get aid to those places. As rescue workers from across the world arrived in the country, and ad-hoc volunteer groups and NGOs mobilised (especially in the Kathmandu Valley), many saw a critical need for gathering and publicising such information as quickly as possible, so that local knowledge was shared effectively and efforts were not duplicated.
Drawing upon youth volunteerism, technical skills and entrepreneurial vision, several projects were developed to create vibrant information networks to facilitate relief distribution. Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), an acclaimed open-source mapping project established in 2012, quickly set to work. It extended its ongoing mapping of the Kathmandu Valley, to create new and more detailed maps of affected districts. Executive Director of KLL Nama Budhathoki pointed out that the project uses a crowd-sourcing model, with citizens directly mapping their neighbourhoods, in order to tap into detailed local knowledge. Budhathoki emphasised that this method is much cheaper and can be updated more frequently (almost in real time) than a centralised effort sponsored by a national government, whether in Nepal or the United States.
Budhathoki organised the efforts of thousands of volunteers following the quake, many of whom were located abroad. Volunteers communicated with each other online, using data made available via satellite, available in part due to KLL’s rapid lobbying effort. KLL reviewed the crowd-sourced maps for accuracy, ensuring that the information people uploaded fit precise geographical representation on the OpenStreetMap program (which, like Wikipedia, can be updated by anyone with internet access). Commenting on the unexpected inflow of support from people across the world, including a new generation of Nepalis excited by volunteerism, Budhathoki noted, “People look at just the map, the product, but the process is fascinating.”
Like Budhathoki, a number of young Nepali professionals who have returned from abroad have spearheaded the tech-entrepreneurial model as a way of drawing upon local knowledge to create data products. For example, non-profit Sano Paila and several local consulting firms worked with the Kathmandu University’s Department of Civil and Geomatics Engineering and ICIMOD to test a new app aimed at collecting data in Bhaktapur’s Pottery Square. According to Kanchan Jha of Sano Paila, the initiative – Disaster Management Information System – is a ‘ground-sourcing’ rather than crowd-sourcing effort. In other words, the role of highly skilled intermediaries is seen as the key to transforming locally sourced information into usable data. A select group of about 20 volunteers, comprising both residents of Sano Paila’s rehabilitation shelters for former drug users and members of local youth clubs, was trained to use the new app. Drawing upon the data collected door-to-door and through follow-up phone calls, the consortium calculated the total number of destroyed and damaged houses, the current shelter within which households were staying and current income status, among other variables. The group hopes to continue to develop the app as a public-private partnership and expand from the ward to the district-level. The apps can provide data that can be used in rebuilding, and in case of future natural disasters, such as floods and landslides.
Questioning the digital divide
But do such tech and internet-based initiatives allow ordinary Nepalis a voice in rebuilding their country? The answer is complicated, as Jay Poudyal points out. Although his blog, Stories of Nepal, carries people’s photos and quotes, capturing their everyday experiences and philosophical musings, he is concerned about villagers’ lack of access to internet-based media. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that only 13.3 percent of Nepalis were internet users (this was a significant advance from 2010’s estimate of 7.9 percent). Moreover, according to a 2014 study by a US-based consulting firm (Terabit Consulting of Cambridge, Massachusetts) internet connectivity in Nepal is slow and, compared to other Southasian countries, very expensive. The domestic network is based on infrastructure laid along the East-West Highway, with linkages to Pokhara and the Kathmandu Valley. Outside of this area, especially in the north (including a number of earthquake-affected districts), connection is limited.
In contrast, in 2013, 79 percent of Nepalis owned mobile phones. Two weeks after the earthquake, residents of the Tundikhel relief camp, in Kathmandu, cited various sources of news and information – word of mouth, radio and ‘simple’ phones were the most common. Among the people we talked to, women were more likely than men to state that they had not consumed any formal media to obtain news of the disaster, although all camp members we met mentioned using mobile phones to gather information.
For internet initiatives and data projects to catch on and attract an audience, it is necessary for them to include people in the process of popularising the event. Poudyal related an incident highlighting the need for two-way communication. He encountered a woman in Kavre whose house had collapsed, killing her livestock. She sat by the remains for three days, waiting for someone to come and share her trauma. She said she was not waiting for aid; she just wanted to be acknowledged. Poudyal explained, “Sometimes people just need human contact.”
Nevertheless, in order to work with communities with relatively limited internet access, several initiatives have offered novel solutions. Budhathoki of KLL explained that most citizens were eager to see their neighbourhoods mapped, and in rural areas – such as Makwanpur, with limited online connectivity – volunteers printed out images from OpenStreetMap and asked local residents to pencil in their neighbourhoods. Poudyal often revisits villages and brings screenshots or printouts of discussions their stories have generated on his blog and Facebook page, in order to share and talk about them with his storytellers. The DMIS consortium uses extensive fieldwork to collect data, which they feel is more accurate than crowd-sourced information.
The Facebook effect
Social media has also played a significant role in facilitating communication and creating usable knowledge for people living in or otherwise connected to crisis-hit districts. Numerous Facebook groups emerged in response to the tragedy. Some, such as ‘Nepal Earthquake 2015’, mobilised Nepalis abroad, while others targeted specific districts, such as ‘Nepal Earthquake Volunteer – Mission Gorkha’. In connecting Nepali and foreign volunteers to supply immediate relief to affected districts, ‘Nepal Earthquake Volunteer Relief Coordination’ was a lively hub. Posts in the first few weeks after the quake focused on the immediate provision of food and shelter, whereas later, more attention was given to mobilising efforts to rebuild schools. Other social connectivity platforms, such as WhatsApp, Viber and Google’s Person Finder, also provided timely networking tools for those with internet access.
Social networking sites were also used, in some cases, to gather practical data for aid and relief projects. The World Food Programme (WFP) conducted a rapid, on-the-ground study of Central and Western Nepal (published in a report on 8 May, 2015) to assess the state of food stocks, markets, drinking-water sources, sanitation and health-care access immediately after 25 April. To help verify the results, WFP worked with BBC Media, which posted WFP’s survey questions on their Facebook page the day of the earthquake. Users were asked to state their location by municipality or VDC and ward number, and report the severity of the damage in their surroundings on a four-step scale ranging from “almost no buildings are destroyed” to “all buildings are in ruins”. More than 350 responses allowed the WFP to rapidly cross-check their survey.
The Himalayan Society for Youth and Women Empowerment (HSYWE), a Kathmandu-based NGO, effectively combined social media, crowd-sourced web platforms and informal networks, to deliver aid to communities from Rasuwa to Ramechhap and beyond. According to Chandani Joshi (Language Programme Manager), on the day of the earthquake, HSYWE was holding a workshop on career counselling and personality development for grade ten students. The organisation’s lunch supplier told the NGO leaders about devastation in his village, Atarpur in Sindhupalchok. HYSWE sprang into action to quickly deliver food relief there.
As HYSWE worked with a number of devastated communities in the following weeks, they drew upon online forums and face-to-face interaction. It was impracticable to make initial visits to assess needs in villages before delivering aid, so the group first contacted a representative in the village. These individuals were sometimes found through crowd-sourced websites such as Quakemap.org. They also relied on Facebook and sites like Nepalrelief.net for up-to-date information from others working on relief operations. To foster transparency and keep government and other civil society organisations updated on their efforts, HYSWE would acquire permission from the VDC. Later, they would inform VDC officials about what exactly had been distributed, and to whom.
HYWSE kept detailed records of the names, age and number of family members, and photographed aid recipients, after which they published relevant information on Quakemap, Facebook and HYSWE’s website. In keeping with their flexibility in working through informal channels, HYSWE’s final relief distribution was at the behest of one of the drivers they had hired for efforts in Sindhupalchok. Tanka Shrestha informed the NGO that 14 families from his village had relocated to a temporary camp on rented land in Mulpani, Kathmandu, close to where someone from their area was already living. HYSWE delivered food and mattresses to this small settlement of refugees – about whom they otherwise would not have known, as they were not registered on social media or websites – and, finally, the NGO carefully documented the process on social media.
Similarly, Bhakti Shaha, of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) – which works for the rights of sexual minorities in Nepal – explained that they immediately called members and friends throughout Kathmandu to assess their situation after the quake. They discovered that they had lost two BDS members in separate building collapses. BDS decided to extend immediate aid to its members by providing tents to those whose houses were unsafe. Then, the organisation turned to relief operations in affected districts. Bhakti explained: “We ignored the perspective from which society and our families looked at us, and we mobilised to contribute to our society – for all people.”
Efforts like these indicate that in Nepal, informal networks and word-of-mouth communication will remain critical, as the spread of digital technologies and media remain sporadic and don’t reach all citizens. As geographic information science (GIS) expert Sachit Pandey explained, there is simply no technical substitute for going to rural places and verifying the accuracy of information gathered from satellite imagery. For example, the extensive tree cover and small size of houses in many villages means that much of the residential damage would not be apparent from satellite images, and would need to be verified on the ground.
Despite some organisations’ successes in combining informal networks with information derived from social media and crowd-sourced websites, exclusive reliance upon word-of-mouth or informal networks can be marginalising or disempowering. At Changunarayan, a popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site within easy reach of Kathmandu, we met Sanu Sunar, who came from Telkot, a village about four kilometres away. She was carrying rocks up a steep lane to the temple, on an exceptionally hot afternoon in May. As her house had been destroyed, her family was still living in a tent in Telkot. Along with a group of women from her village, a local thekedar (contractor) had brought her to Changunarayan for day labour. She had never worked so far away from her village before, and she said that she did not know about government relief programmes. Her lack of access to information was especially surprising as Changunarayan was not cut off by the disaster. About a week earlier, the home minister had personally come to the temple to close it until it could be reconstructed, and had even spoken with some of the residents. Army and police officers had also come to distribute aid and talk to people. Despite working in the vicinity of a World Heritage Site, Sanu Sunar did not have access to vital information about relief efforts.
Women in rural areas are especially cut off from channels of public discourse and information. Journalist and President of Sancharika Samuha, Nirmala Sharma, explained that the proliferation of media over the past two decades has provided more outlets for the inclusion of women’s voices and attention to gender-based issues in Nepal. She noted, however, that in rural areas, women continue to have less access to local, public forums for discussing politics and government policies. Further, the situation of rural women who lost their husbands in the earthquake is especially grim. Many such women she met were isolated and too traumatised or depressed to go out and seek information. The stigma of widowhood created a further barrier to leaving home and accessing resources. Sharma advocated for women to be included directly in the rebuilding process, stating that 50 percent representation of women was required because typically, in rural areas, “the men are decision-makers, women are not”. Moreover, the lack of local elections – which were supposed to include reserved seats for women – means that women’s voices are missing.
Receiving aid would not be a straightforward process even if it were accessible, as property titles are often registered in the deceased husband’s name, and many women have neither citizenship nor marriage certificates. Further, the recent eviction of tenants from Tundikhel who did not have valid citizenship cards (even in cases where people claimed to have lost them in the earthquake) indicates that access to valid documents will affect the distribution of benefits. The government, moreover, is not always sensitive to how women can be positioned differently vis-à-vis bureaucracy. For example, Sharma noted that a CDO in one earthquake-affected district had informed her that as government programmes serve all citizens alike, there is no need for women’s particular needs to be incorporated. Rural women would need not only to be informed of their rights, but also to be empowered to speak up for themselves and claim those rights.
Another group working for women and gender equality in the media, Media Advocacy Group (MAG), has established pilot information centres in Nuwakot, Gorkha and Sindhupalchowk. As well as providing information on how to navigate bureaucracy in order to benefit from government relief programmes, the information centres have been documenting cases of gender-based violence. A seasoned campaigner for the right to information in Nepal, MAG’s executive president Babita Basnet felt that as women were often cut off from public discussions in rural areas, extra effort would be required to reach out to women, as well as to listen to their experiences post-disaster. Having “only half of the information is very dangerous,” Basnet explained. “Information gives you confidence. It’s a [form of] power.”
The proliferation of communication and informal news sources after the earthquake have connected many people, bypassed others and sometimes propagated rumours. The government’s response to the multiplication of information channels and relief efforts has been to push for the much debated ‘one-door’ policy. Parallel to the government’s attempt to centralise donations and aid, ICIMOD and the Ministry of Home Affairs have publicised DRRIP “as a single-gateway for validated data and information related to Nepal Earthquake 2015”. As an NGO activist confided to us, government control and oversight had been unusually tight. The government has even prosecuted some people for spreading rumours, such as those who were capitalising on SMS pyramid schemes by spreading misinformation about the quake, according to MIC Joint Secretary Khanal.
Whether information is channelled through one avenue or proliferates through diffuse networks, the sense of uncertainty remains. As efforts are underway to ‘rebuild Nepal better’, the value of grassroots participation, greater access to information, and equal participation in decision-making should remain at the fore.
~Pradeep Singh is an economist based in Kathmandu.
~Catherine Warner is currently a College Fellow in the departments of South Asian Studies and History at Harvard University, Massachusetts.