I wonder if government and those charged with regulating cellular telephony and the internet in South Africa have fully appreciated the strategic value that social media and internet-based emergency services played in the Boston bombings?
If they did pay even the slightest attention, they would realise that the internet is no longer just another medium nor is social media simply a plaything for kids and people with time on their hands.
According to Jason Notte, writing for MSN Money, “As with the shootings at a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, last summer and the Newtown school shootings in December, Americans increasingly turned to social media like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Instagram to update information, keep track of loved ones and communicate when other means were unavailable. This time, however, social media got a bit of an assist from both and the American Red Cross.”
Notte said that when the cell phone service in Boston “was slammed and local news providers like Boston.com buckled beneath the traffic, social media sites stepped in to inform people about evacuation routes, medical assistance and places for stranded runners to stay. It also provided a means for people in the city to inform loved ones of both their condition and location in a single post”.
Google and the Red Cross, he wrote, took things a step further by offering databases where people in Boston could leave information about their whereabouts and where friends and loved ones could find location and contact information.
“Google’s Person Finder service, which was used only once before during 2011’s Typhoon in the Philippines, was activated just after the bombings and is still tracking 5,300 people. “The American Red Cross’ Well database, meanwhile, allowed people to let others know they were OK but left it up to those registering to decide whether they wanted to include contact and location information,” said Notte.
There is no doubt that the Boston bombings have proved the strategic value of the internet and social media
There are, however, two key elements that mitigate against this becoming something upon which rescue services and the authorities can rely in times of crisis. The first is the outrageous cost of internet connectivity in South Africa and the second is an equally outrageous lack of bandwidth.
It really is time that government realised that the internet can be the foundation for rapid and effective communication in times of crisis.
But even more so, it can be and should be the foundation for communication between civic authorities and citizens.
It is no longer a luxury or an asset that can be usurped and used only for profit.
South Africa is still one of the most expensive countries in the world when it comes to virtually all forms of digital communication from cellular telephony to internet access and satellite television.
Internet access in my opinion should be treated in precisely the same way as water, sewage and electricity. It is now a fundamental right in any country that calls itself civilised.
Unfortunately however, we are stuck with a government that believes that poor people can quite easily survive the devastating domino effects of a massively increasing fuel prices, e-tolls and rising food prices.
I suppose something like the internet is not going to get any sort of favourable consideration under those circumstances.