Pakreport aims to bolster relief efforts

Published: August 27, 2010

Citizen journalism is fast becoming the most effective means of coordination as floods ravage the country.

ISLAMABAD: After the earthquake of 2005, it was observed that a reliable central authority was needed to facilitate cooperation between public and private relief agencies. Pakreport.org, an online initiative set up by Islamabad-based entrepreneur Faisal Chohan, seeks to fill the vacuum of crisis communication in Pakistan.

Using information reported by volunteers in different areas, Pakreport creates a dynamic map providing a comprehensive, constantly updated picture of the situation. It is the latest application of citizen journalism in the country, where individual contributions can help provide direction to relief organizations.

“The system aims to supply real-time information, which is why the volunteers are needed,” explained Arsalan Ali Faheem, coordinator for verification policy and volunteer teams.

“What happens is that people send in reports via text, email or web, indicating a need. The map then plots the need and also notifies NGOS and relief agencies working in the area. If they have resources, they can help.”

The blueprint for the open source software, “Ushahidi”, has been employed to combat humanitarian crises like the recent earthquake in Haiti. “Ushahidi” literally means “testimony” in Swahili – an apt name for a means of recording eyewitness accounts and firsthand research. The main categories for incident reporting include “Emergency”, “Food”, “Water and sanitation”, “Health”, “Shelter” and “Volunteers needed.

Each shows up in a different colour on the map, which can be enlarged to see the situation in each region at the Union Council level. Incident reports about villages also involve damage assessments recording the number of houses affected, which will prove invaluable at the reconstruction stage.

Right now, a vast amount of resources is being directed towards flood relief from a variety of sources. A huge amount of manpower has also been mobilised, from indigenous charities and youth organisations to teams of international experts. What has been lacking is a network to link together the disparate efforts, in order to dispatch aid to the right places at the right time. The danger of duplication is a real one, whereby aid goes to waste in easily accessible areas while others remain in dire need.

Nowshera, for instance, is a few hours from Islamabad on the motorway. People who settled in the relief camps there have been fortunate enough to receive shelter and basic provisions after the initial shock of the disaster. Now, the needs are shifting as the water levels in the north recede and families head back to their homes. The streets on each side are lined with the rubble of destroyed houses, while dampness in the remaining structures breeds fear of disease to come. At a distribution point set up by private individuals in conjunction with the NGO SPARC, a few women returned their clothes, saying others could use them more. At the medical desk, however, the drugs for scabies and fungal infections soon ran short. Women from all backgrounds also reported symptoms of stress and trauma, faced with the task of rebuilding homes for their families.

“My father worked with the Civil Aviation Authority in Karachi,” said one well-spoken woman. “Then we moved to Nowshera and built our own house. Now we have nothing.”

Traditionally, the onus of providing for the dynamically changing needs of the people would fall on the state. However, at a time when civil society is highly active and politicised, there has been a lack of faith in the state machinery. The dominant demand is for transparency. The goal now is to achieve a liaison between the public and private sector, so that private organisations benefit from the state resources and outreach.

Almost 20 million people have been affected by the crisis, out of which the UN estimates that 800,000 can only be reached by air. In the wake of such staggering statistics, initiatives like Pakreport are aiming to partner with the National Disaster Management Authority and other state apparatus.

“The Ministry of Information has been very helpful in educating the heads of state media about the initiative, but we are still at the stage of reaching out to agencies,” said Faisal Chohan, in the press release for Pakrelief Crowdmaps. “The more people start using this crisis map, the better we’ll be able to avoid unintended duplication of relief work and reach people who haven’t yet been helped.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2010.

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