Ryan  Burns, phd
October 7, 2012

Social media, disaster management, and urban redevelopment

News of Neil Smith’s death got me reflecting on how much his work has influenced my own. For those who don’t know, Neil wrote some of the most important articles and books on gentrification, urban development, and uneven development. His book The New Urban Frontier provided an incredibly productive analysis of how in the 80s (& 90s?) deprived spaces in the city became a “frontier” for developers and high-end private businesses, but only through institutional, government-led initiatives such as policing, tax breaks, and market tweaks.

Disaster rebuilding, particularly in the global South (I was recently told this term is too academic-y? How about, “developing world”?), can at times follow a similar logic as the one Neil presented for gentrification. In part this can be described as a privatizing of disaster relief. In Haiti in 2010 the goal was to “build back better”, after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka most local fishermen were forced out to make way for all-inclusive resort development, Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to introduce charter schools to the Lower 9th Ward, etc., etc., etc. In my own conversations with federal agency representatives, the private sector is held almost unilaterally as the party to deliver post-disaster rebuilding. Private sector industries are often brought in by state-based parties, as a way of ensuring “efficiency”, “speed”, and “jobs”. In case the problematics there aren’t clear, let me be explicit: this amounts to profit generation from loss, death, and destruction.

Social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, are increasingly being used to facilitate disaster response and urban rebuilding efforts. This happens in many, many ways that defy quick blog-style descriptions (or maybe I’ll try that in a later post), but for my purposes what’s important is that these technologies inform response efforts in ways that haven’t yet been explored. In fact, at this point, I still have to justify (logically, because i haven’t yet gathered much on-the-ground evidence) this train of thought: a) social media is used by disaster responders to distribute their resources, b) disaster affects urban geographies of economies, inter-relationships, and daily life; therefore, c) social media has material impacts on urban geographies through disaster response.

As of this writing, nobody - and I do mean nobody - has characterized these impacts. Much attention instead is questioning which agencies use which technologies, and how to operate with these new technologies and forms of data.

On the one hand, it’s useful to refer back to Neil Smith and argue that social media, via privatized disaster relief, is another tool in the toolbox of capitalism (more precisely, capital accumulation). On the other hand, this new development of social media in disaster response pushes back at times against Smith’s engagement. For instance, a large proportion of work that’s done in this field (SMEM - social media in emergency management) is done by volunteers; some notable examples include the Standby Task Force, OpenStreetMap, and Sahana.

The important point here is that even though these are volunteer efforts, they are still enrolled in certain political and economic relations. For this I find it useful to move beyond Smith’s gentrification and include the work of Ananya Roy in Poverty Capital, and some of the stuff written by Wajcman, my adviser Sarah Elwood, and perhaps unexpectedly some of Neil Brenner’s work on urban political economy.

Needless to say, there’s much more work that needs to happen here. I kind of consider this my own long-term research trajectory, albeit not for my dissertation. But that’s a big reason I want to stay in academia - to explore some of these big questions I still have.

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