It was a vibrant summer afternoon in Nairobi on January 15, 2019. In the epicenter of Nairobi’s Westlands neighborhood, the dusitD2 Hotel was bustling with professionals enjoying extended lunch breaks and vendors selling cold Fantas to passersby basking in the fierce sub-Saharan sun. Cars honking in gridlocked traffic provided the soundtrack to this typical Monday in Kenya’s capital.
Elsewhere, in a Nairobi suburb, Phillip Ogola, founder of the digital first-response organization Digital Humanitarian, was enjoying quality time at home with his family. But his quiet afternoon took an abrupt turn when disaster struck the downtown complex.
It started with a gunshot and two explosions inside the hotel, followed by an explosion in a neighboring restaurant. Unbeknownst to the victims now trapped in the Dusit, the attackers had arrived in two vans and laid siege, lobbing grenades as they forcefully made their way inside the hotel and ignited parked cars in the surrounding lot. Scared and confused, the victims hid. They barely even breathed, hoping to blend in with the eerie silence, a dramatic auditory shift from the energized hum in the complex not long ago.
Within the first hour of the attack, Ogola received dozens of calls and messages with cries of desperation and confusion. Ogola and his team quickly gathered information and worked with law enforcement to confirm that the explosion was an act of terrorism. Without hesitation he sprang into action, setting up a command center a few miles away from the Dusit and helping the Red Cross and Nairobi police in their response efforts.
Ogola instructed people trapped in the hotel to periodically turn off their phones to save battery power, to not reveal their location via their phone, and to make sure they weren’t being hacked. To connect victims with medics and Red Cross staff, Ogola created a WhatsApp group to communicate with those involved. He also created a separate group for families of the victims to provide them updates and information.
The victims used the group chat for reassurance, medical help, and in the final hours of the attack, to check in with Kenyan authorities and ultimately help law enforcement determine the death toll.
Ogola’s group chat was instrumental in organizing a safe and effective rescue effort, a dramatic improvement from responses to previous attacks of a similar magnitude. In the last eight years, Kenya has seen a significant rise in violent terrorist attacks. A notable event in this unfortunate trend was the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall Attack, in which 69 people lost their lives and 175 people were severely injured. The country has struggled with both eradicating terrorist attacks and creating an effective first response plan to set in motion when they do occur. Ogola has helped the country make significant strides in the latter effort.
With more than 10 years of experience working in disaster response, Ogola has observed the positive and negative roles social media can play in terrorist attacks. In this heightened period of terrorism, Kenyans have taken advantage of various social platforms—especially WhatsApp and Twitter—to spread the word about terrorist events as they occur. Ogola experienced this firsthand during his time working with the marketing team at the Kenya Red Cross Society.
Ogola used his observations to create Digital Humanitarian, an organization committed to using social media as a means of first response to terrorist attacks and other disasters. From shining a light on suicide helplines to covering protests happening in real time, Digital Humanitarian gives the Kenyan public the opportunity to initiate and organize efforts to promote public safety and good. Digital Humanitarian joins the likes of other Kenyan based tech companies using social platforms for social good like Ushahidi, a company that gives marginalized people a platform to raise their voice for those who serve them to listen and respond better via crowdsourcing.
In cases of terrorism, Ogola encourages the Kenyan public to reach out to Digital Humanitarian on social media. From there, Ogola and his team create a “digital command center” near the site of attack and work alongside law enforcement to organize responses and keep hostages calm and safe, while creating a strategic safe rescue plan.
This process has proven effective, reducing death tolls and the duration of law enforcement’s emergency response to terrorist attacks. But before social media is integrated into a streamlined first response process, both the Kenyan public and first responders need to learn how to identify fake news and the dangers of oversharing on social platforms.
“Kenya may be way ahead with using social media”, Ogola says, “but [first responders and other groups] aren’t tapped into it”. Kenyans inclination to overshare and the general lack of knowledge about fake news have significantly compromised civilians’ safety during terrorist events. Social media played a big part in the magnitude of the Westgate attacks with many hostages losing their lives because of fake news spread by al-Shabaab on Twitter. Ogola and his team are committed to educating Kenyans on how to recognize fake news and the dangers of oversharing in times of crisis.
Ogola’s digital safety plan is transforming the way Kenya approaches terrorist attacks and other catastrophic events. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, playing an active role in Kenyans everyday lives. Using social media to organize relief efforts will revolutionize the country’s recovery from devastation, and, he hopes, make the uptick of terrorism in Kenya a thing of the past.
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