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close this bookDisasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 65 - January, 1996 (PAHO)
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(introductory text...)

News and Information for the International Disaster Community

January 1995


The Internet: Tending to the Basics

The Internet - virtually unknown among the general public and to the average disaster manager in Latin America and the Caribbean until some five years ago - is now a household name. The media reports daily about the limitless potential of this new technology. There are few emergency situations in which Internet has not been promoted as the miracle antidote to a lack of information or poor coordination. This is amply illustrated by the many global initiatives launched with great fanfare... and austere budgets.

No doubt the Internet has great potential for improving disaster management, but for this to happen, disaster managers from Latin America, the Caribbean and other disaster-prone regions must cull the essential from the nice (but superfluous) of "cyberspace."

One of the basic advantage of the Internet is that it allows people to communicate - simply and cheaply. But, until more disaster managers have access to e-mail and discussions groups, the potential remains untapped.

The essential: a low-cost means of communication

Intercountry collaboration

For the last 20 years, PAHO's disaster program has encouraged close cooperation between health sectors in countries of this Region. In fact. most contact between national counterparts takes place in meetings convened and supported by the Organization. However. the resolutions and shared commitments made when meeting face-to-face often fail because of a lack of follow-up communication after meetings. This could be easily corrected by employing simple, low-cost Internet features such as e-mail, file transfer and discussion groups - all excellent tools for maintaining the momentum gained in these intercountry meetings.

Once the initial investment in material and training is made, institutions have no budgetary excuse to restrict direct contact across agency and country borders. Indeed, communicating to an Internet address in Australia or the office across the corridor will cost basically the same.

Exchange among experts

Working in a narrow field of expertise - managing mass casualties after earthquakes, for instance - sharply limits the number of colleagues with similar expertise one is likely to meet locally. To maintain their expertise. health care disaster specialists must reach out to others with comparable skills. Group discussions on the Internet offer a low-cost alternative for professional exchange on very specialized topics, sometimes of interest for only a short period time. An example would be a discussion of the potential health impact of the eruption of the Cerro Negro in Nicaragua. In no time, local experts can consult with the most experienced specialists worldwide.

Access to scientific libraries

In developing countries few are blessed with free access to scientific literature. Libraries and universities are cutting their subscriptions under budgetary pressure. Access to foreign libraries is far from easy or cheap. The strength of the Internet is that it democratizes access to the information stored in millions of computer databases such as the U.S. National Library of Medicine, UN documentation centers, or countless FTP sites. Much of the database of the PAHO/IDNDR Regional Disaster Documentation Center is already accessible through the Internet, and soon the entire collection will be available. This democratization does have certain limits, since the Internet is reserved for those who are computer literate (and equipped) and have access to a reliable telephone line! Not every disaster manager is that fortunate.

The nice... but superfluous


We feel that too much emphasis is placed on the graphics capability of the Internet (and Windows). We should judge the cake primarily by its nutritional value and taste and not by the glossy icing. Downloading photos and graphics may be nice and occasionally important but should not be pursued at the expense of more accessible and critical text-based communication features. PAHO's decision to maintain its Gopher (text only) and to refrain from using sophisticated graphics on its WWW home page should be emulated.

Specialized networks

Specialized regional or global disaster or health networks have been established, but basically are "home pages" offering general information. Their value, like that of any traditional newsletter or informal publication, varies. While they may be very useful sources of information, especially when designed for a well-defined audience, they are no substitute for dialogue within Latin America and the Caribbean through e-mail and group discussions.

The Internet's darker side

The negative side of the Internet comes from its very strength: its unregulated, often chaotic nature. Free, unbridled exchange of information can result in a confusion of choices, and a profusion of the pseudoscientific, politically motivated, disguised commercial. or clearly unethical material. "Surfing the net'' will require more sophistication and greater skepticism. There is no editor or review board to catch the most obvious abuses. The reputation of the source (agency or individual) and rigor of the scientific argument are more critical than ever in judging the value of the "information." The Internet's power as a communication tool has not been grossly misused in the disaster field... yet. The time will come when unsubstantiated earthquake "predictions" or unfounded rumors (so common after disasters) will immediately find a global audience. This hazard is another compelling reason for disaster officials to monitor and react to material on the Net.

The international community and the Internet

Disaster management can only benefit from rapid and widespread access to the most basic and essential text-based features of the Internet. Free access to information and routine dialogue across borders will have a more profound effect on societies than can be estimated.

Photographs and graphics should not be pursued at the expense of more accessible and critical text-based communications features.

It is particularly worrisome to note that almost all international funding and political support has been directed to improving disaster databases and information that is available to the same circle of international actors who. with little effort. have access to enormous amounts of data. Those already connected to the Internet are the only beneficiaries of most of these international initiatives. Only meager resources are being made available to broaden the user base in developing countries. where there is a real need to bridge the information gap.

Delaying access to the Internet in Latin America and the Caribbean, whether by inertia, conservatism, or under the pretext of preventing possible abuse or misuse, is tantamount to burning the printing presses in the middle ages or banning photocopiers in this century. The result will be a rapid widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots of the information era, a determining factor for development.