Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

PHILIPPINES: When A Typhoon Comes, Turn to Twitter

Kara Santos

MANILA, Nov 14 2010 (IPS) - Disaster time is social networking time for a growing number of humanitarian agencies, weather agencies, volunteers and individuals in the Philippines, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.

Indeed, experts have credited social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter for helping keep the death toll below 20 during Supertyphoon Megi, which hit this archipelagic country with wind speeds of up to 269 kilometres per hour in October.

The national weather agency, the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services (PAGASA), launched its official Twitter account in mid-October, just before Megi was to hit land.

The real-time updates, which were “retweeted” by followers and reported by mainstream radio and television stations, ensured that the public knew when and where the typhoon was expected to hit hardest. Thousands were able to move to safer places or took precautionary measures before the typhoon struck.

Barely a month after being set up, PAGASA’s Twitter account now has over 28,000 followers who receive the standard 140-character “Tweets” on weather advisories and storm updates.

“Social networking sites are so popular these days. A lot the youth and the different sectors are already using this medium, so we decided we might as well tap it,” says Venus Valdemoro, officer-in-charge of PAGASA’s Public Information Unit.

This vigilance in preparing for the destruction that the Philippines experiences each year – an average of 20 typhoons strike come each year – stems from painful lessons learned from the fury of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009. Although the country is used to dealing with typhoons during the second half of the year, erratic weather patterns have been taking a greater toll on lives and property in recent years.

Combine this vulnerability with Filipinos’ penchant for using new technology – the country is often called the text- message capital of the world – and the use of new media for social needs becomes quite natural.

According to U.S.-based information technology research firm Gartner, the Philippines, a country of 94 million people with an Internet penetration rate of 29.7 percent, leads Asia in the adoption of social media websites.

It currently ranks sixth in the world on the use of two of the most popular networking websites, Facebook and Twitter. The Philippines has more than 18 million Facebook users as of November 2010 and a Twitter penetration rate of 14.8 percent, according to digital marketing intelligence group comScore.

Disaster and aid agencies are jumping on the social media bandwagon. The Philippine Red Cross (PRC), for instance, has been using Facebook and Twitter to relay news of its activities to the public.

The PRC’s account on Twitter gained some 3,000 followers within days of its launch during the peak of Typhoon Ketsana. Its number of followers has since swelled to 42,364 and continues to grow.

“The wide scope social networking sites cover makes it the most effective means to communicate with the general public,” PRC secretary general Gwendolyn Pang tells IPS.

The number of PRC’s Facebook fans increased during Ketsana and thousands of volunteers were mobilised through the social networking website for rescue and relief operations, Pang adds. The organisation now has over one hundred thousand supporters on Facebook.

“Basically, through this technology, everybody is just one post away, making it the most cost-efficient way for us to make our announcements public,” says Pang.

Ruben Canlas Jr, an information technology and management consultant, says the use of social media has eliminated the “middleman” in communication, giving the public information straight from the source. “In the past, we had no choice but to rely on radio and TV for weather and emergency updates, which are not efficient ways for disseminating urgent information,” says Canlas.

Competing broadcasting stations also create a “technological bottleneck”, Canlas explains, when they interview a spokesperson and thus prevent other radio and television stations from accessing that source for a period of time.

“Now, PAGASA itself can broadcast the information through a tweet and media can simply report using the tweet,” he adds.

While only the weather agency’s Twitter account is official, PAGASA officials say they have been flooded with requests to maintain accounts on Facebook and Friendster as well.

The Philippines is ranked the most disaster-prone country in the world, according to a recent study by Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. The World Bank lists it among the countries most affected by climate change, and most in danger of facing frequent and intense storms.

On average, the country is battered by 20 typhoons a year. Megi was just the tenth typhoon to hit the Philippines in 2010.

In September and October 2009, typhoons Ketsana and Parma struck the northern Philippine island of Luzon within a week of each other, triggering the worst flooding in four decades, and killing more than 1,000 people in the country and in other East Asian countries it hit afterwards.

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