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International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment

Information volunteers strategies in crisis communication: the case of Mt. Merapi eruption in Indonesia
2010
Kurniawan Adi Saputro

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Kurniawan Adi Saputro , (2016),"Information volunteers strategies in crisis communication: the case of Mt. Merapi eruption
in Indonesia 2010", International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, Vol. 7 Iss 1 pp. Permanent link to this document:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/IJDRBE-07-2013-0027
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Information Volunteers Strategies In Crisis Communication:


The Case Of Mt. Merapi Eruption In Indonesia 2010

Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to present a case study on the communication
strategies used by the information volunteers of Jalin Merapi during the Mt. Merapi
disaster in Indonesia 2010.
Design/Methodology/Approach 18 information volunteers are interviewed to find out
about their strategies in organising crisis communication, and follow-up interviews are
conducted with several donors and media professionals to understand the wider context.
The questions cover how the information is sourced, published, and verified and the
reasons behind their decisions. The concept of mediated suffering helps to analyse how
their strategies construct with whom, with what subject, and how the media users engage
with the survivors.
Finding This study finds that information volunteers of Jalin Merapi focused on the
overlooked survivors and issues of Mt. Merapi disaster based on their observation of the
mainstream medias coverage of the previous disaster in 2006. The needs of the refugees,
rather than the availability of donors aid, were foregrounded to encourage the wider
public to donate. And access to connect directly with the survivors was provided to
enhance the efficacy of aid and to facilitate repeat donations.
Research limitations/implications Further empirical studies in other disaster contexts
are called for to assess whether similar or different strategies are employed in
participatory crisis communication.
Originality/value This study presents a rare case of participatory crisis communication
in a disaster. The perspective of the media audience helps situate the findings in the
context of the wider media environment and in the context of collective action as often
seen in response to disaster.
Background
It has been established in the sociology of disaster that in response to a disaster people
and groups of people of different social and geographic backgrounds come together to
help (Prince, 1920; Parr, 1969; Stallings and Quarantelli, 1985). They work in loosely
connected groups and in general they carry out a new task under a newly built
organisational structure (Drabek and McEntire, 2003). These people and the survivors
themselves oftentimes act as the first responders due to, among other factors, the
suddenness of a disaster, the unmet needs, and driven by altruism (Drabek and McEntire,
2003; Rodriguez et al., 2006; Quarantelli, 1995). It is within reason to assert the
importance of these emergent citizen groups in the disaster relief response.
Sociologists of disaster explain that emergence is facilitated by the lack of
communication to define the situation and the absence of communication networks
between the stakeholders (Parr, 1969). More recent studies suggest otherwise, claiming
that the increasing availability of communication technologies has increased the peoples
situation awareness (Palen and Liu, 2007; Palen 2008) and that this in turn facilitates

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them to join volunteerism (Starbird and Palen, 2011; Meier, 2012). This study follows the
argument that it is the presence, not the absence, of communication networks that enables
emergence in disaster. To be more specific, it is the strategic use of communication
networks that facilitates the efficacy of emergent behaviours.
Crisis Communication and Emergence
The field of crisis communication focuses on efforts to address crisis situation
(Coombs, 2009). Since crisis is defined by its impact on the organisations performance,
crisis communication concerns itself with organisational issues and its aim is to redress
the harmful impact. This definition suffers from managerial bias (Heath, 2010) since it
sees the organisation as the main victim of the crisis and, in so doing, it forgets the other
social formations, including other publics (Waymer and Heath, 2007; Seeger, 2008).
Furthermore, it prioritises organisation as the main actor in crisis management. Although
he has struck the core problem, Heaths criticism has not tackled the larger problem,
which is the disintegration of the dividing wall between professional communicators and
the engaged audiences in crisis communication. The communicators in the contemporary
crisis are no longer media professionals and public relation managers alone, but the
engaged audiences as well (Kim and Dutta, 2009). Crisis communication, which adopts
the perspective of professional communicators, now needs to incorporate the perspective
of the audiences.
People in disaster situations have been communicating with each other before the
invention of internet and mobile phones until now. What makes the adoption of the
internet and mobile phones matter is that it has allowed people to aggregate information
from different places and simultaneously distribute it back. Although the end result is not
as polished as that of the mainstream media, the citizen-produced crisis communication
has been the de facto information source for many people (Gillmor, 2004; Bruns et al.,
2012; Starbird and Palen, 2011). Citizens initiatives in disaster communication range
from disaster mapping (Meier, 2012), to being information operators (Starbird and
Stamberger, 2010), to being information volunteers as this study describes.
Often the people who are affected by the disaster and visitors from the
surrounding areas are the first responders themselves (Prince, 1920; Stallings and
Quarantelli, 1985; Parr, 1969; Fraustino et al., 2012). Not only do they help to evacuate
the victims and to distribute the aid relief, these people also contribute information that
can be vital in a disaster (Palen, 2008; Starbird and Stamberger, 2010; Bruns et al., 2012).
In the case of the Mt. Merapi eruption in Indonesia in 2010 they used handheld
transceivers, short message services (SMS), micro-blogs, and various social network sites
to report, request, and share crisis information. These various communication
technologies allow amateurs and loosely affiliated individuals to pursue common goals,
namely providing information about and in response to disaster.
The Potential of Information Volunteers
Among many kinds of work that are done by volunteers, one pertinent activity is
producing and distributing information. Bruns and Burgess (2012) and Bruns et al.
(2012) observed how information published on the micro-blogging service Twitter during

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the South East Queensland floods in Australia and the Christchurch earthquake in New
Zealand reached wider audiences, within and outside the country, because it was reposted
(retweeted) by Twitter users. Although the sources of original information are dominated
by government agencies, local governments, and news organisations, the role of
individual Twitter users to amplify the message and focus the publics attention cannot be
overlooked. And we are starting to see deeper engagement by publics using
communication technologies other than for passing on information that they think is
worth knowing by other people.
One role played by volunteers during the earthquake in Haiti was studied by Kate
Starbird et al. (2010, 2011) in which Twitter users tweaked their own or other peoples
tweets by ordering the words in a particular sequence and by using preselected markers
(known as hashtags) so that the tweets were machine-readable. In addition to identifying
volunteers who translated the regular tweets to the tweaked syntax (translators), she
observed volunteers who were remotely moving information from one source to another
using various means (remote operators). These two roles can be played remotely by
anyone who has access to the internet and has the know-how to use its different services.
However, these two forms of engagement need closer relationship with the ground relief
operation for the crisis information to actually achieve its optimum use.
The disaster in Haiti has also prompted other groups of humanitarian technologists
to build a system whereby the people of Haiti can report their emergency needs in Creole
while the Haiti diaspora communities of the world translate the messages into English
(Meier and Munro, 2010). The most urgent messages are then added to a live map to be
read by the emergency responders. The efficacy of the map is affirmed by the head of the
U.S. Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) as being the most
comprehensive and up-to-date (Meier, 2012).
These examples are representative of an increasing trend in the use of newly
available communication technologies to leverage the work of dispersed volunteers
during a disaster. The contribution may take such forms as unintended amplification of
vital information, the structuring of the publics report, or the translation and mapping of
emergency reports. This article contributes to the literature on volunteers engagement in
disaster by describing the work of Jalin Merapis information volunteers during the
eruption of Mt. Merapi in Indonesia 2010. The volunteers play an important role in
collecting information about the refugees needs, verifying and publishing it and, in so
doing, connecting the refugees with the publics. They fill gaps left by the overwhelmed
local governments and the mainstream media by providing actionable information to
publics who want to donate.
The Study
To study the citizens communication initiative, I interviewed 18 information volunteers
(relawan informasi) from Jalin Merapi about their strategies in the production and
distribution of disaster-related information. The volunteers were selected by snowball
sampling based on their different involvements in Jalin Merapis relief response, ranging
from the head coordinator to the citizen journalists. To gain wider understanding of the
case, I also conducted interviews with several people who used the information supplied

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by Jalin Merapi to assess the actual benefits they derived from it and I interviewed mass
media reporters to assess the difference in their focus of coverage. Some of the volunteers
were interviewed as a group to enable them to discuss their work collectively and the rest
of the interviews were done individually. The interviews started during the disaster itself
and continued for 2 years after the event. The fallibility of memory is anticipated and
remedied by cross-checking the statements with those of other interviewees, with my own
observations, and with other documents.
The questions asked of the interviewees were a combination of exploratory and
theoretically-informed questions about their work. Questions were exploratory in the
sense that the field of participatory disaster communication is still developing and,
consequently, not all of the questions were informed by previous studies. The topics of
the interview included how the information was sourced, how its veracity was vetted,
how it was published, and what were the reasons behind their methods. The goal was to
derive insights and lessons from the actual actors of participatory disaster communication
through reducing the interview transcripts into distinctive themes.
The concepts employed in this study are largely borrowed from the work of Luc
Boltanski (2004). Boltanskis concept of distant suffering is relevant because media
bring the afflicted and the audiences together in a particular way. And we need to look at
the connection between them beyond the moment of information reception, but also to
include the action audiences take afterward. Hence, this study examines how the
information volunteers facilitate a connection between the wider audiences and the
survivors. To understand the new approach of Jalin Merapi toward crisis communication,
this study asks and attempts to answer with whom, what, and how the people engage in a
mediated disaster.
The Case
Before presenting the insights and lessons, it is worth describing what Jalin
Merapi is and how it operates. When founded in 2006 Jalin Merapi, which literally means
the information network of Merapi, was a coalition of three community radios on the
slope of Mt. Merapi, two networks of community radio, and four local NGOs in the
surrounding area of Mt. Merapi. The coalition was initiated after their realisation that
during Mt. Merapis eruption in 2006 the people of Merapi needed to communicate more
between themselves and that they could not rely on the mainstream media to voice their
real concerns to the publics because the media listened to the authorities more than them.
Four years later, during the eruption of Mt. Merapi that claimed 341 lives and forced at
least 280,000 people to evacuate the area, Jalin Merapi recruited and assigned
approximately 700 volunteers to gather information about the refugees needs, to operate
a media centre, and to help distribute the relief aid. Jalin Merapis role in providing
information about the refugees needs was seen as very helpful by personal donors,
friends and relatives of the people of Merapi, civil society organisations, and the
journalists themselves.
Information volunteers are part of the larger group of volunteers who work for
Jalin Merapi. Information volunteers consist of field information volunteers, media centre
operators, and citizen journalists. Field information volunteers stay at the refugee camp

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and they are responsible for obtaining information about the refugees (total numbers, age,
sex) and information about their needs. Usually field information volunteers work
simultaneously as field volunteers to distribute aid, but field volunteers are not
necessarily information volunteers. The media centre operators receive, organise, publish,
and verify the information respectively. The media centre operators receive information
from different kinds of media, consolidate it with other reports, and publish it on Google
Docs and Twitter updates, verifying it as they go along. The citizen journalists write daily
news articles about the refugees. All in all, the information volunteers produce different
kinds of information content, including tips on becoming volunteers, summaries of
volunteers meeting, transcriptions of live observations of the mountain, lists of aid
received and needed, and traditional news articles.
The glue that holds all the information together is the live spreadsheet on Google
Docs that can be read by internet users, but it can only be updated by field volunteers and
the media centre operators. If the information needs an even speedier response, the
information is published on Twitter. Slower kinds of information are published as news
articles and situation reports. In addition to receiving information from volunteers,
Twitter and SMS gateway are used to allow participation from the general public. People
enthusiastically report their needs and their observations to Jalin Merapi (@jalinmerapi),
which will publish them. The central aim of the diverse communication channels and
information contents is to connect the wider publics, especially those who want to donate,
and the survivors.
In addition to money, private donors in Indonesia are fond of giving in-kind
donations. The fact that there are thousands of them acting independently of each other
and, on the other hand, different refugee camps may need different goods and services,
causes highly complex problems. For the donors, information from Jalin Merapi helps to
determine what to provide in what quantity. Furthermore, it also helps donors to see
which areas are still lacking supplies since the mainstream media usually focus on the
major refugee camps as proxies of the whole situation and the local governments are
slowed down by procedures.
Findings and Discussion
Reporting the overlooked
In 2006 the people of Merapi underwent a period of volcanic crisis that lasted for months.
In addition to being uncertain about the explosion and about when they could leave the
refugee camps, the local governments disaster management was so weak that, for
example, the people of Merapi had to pay for their own petrol to evacuate. On the other
hand, the media could not be expected to voice their true concerns since, in the words of
one of the founders, the media quoted the local governments public relations. It
might be due to their laziness, or due to them not knowing whom to talk to, that they did
not go higher to the peoples place. They only went to the official refugee camps. It
motivated them to create an information network between the local people themselves,
and the local people and the wider publics. The community radios on the different sides
of Merapi supply the information and the NGOs in the surrounding cities help connect
them with the wider publics. Their main tool of publication is the website of Jalin Merapi,

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maintained by an NGO in the city of Yogyakarta that specialises in providing


technological support for communities.
Learning from the previous disaster, Jalin Merapi stationed the field information
volunteers at or close to refugee camps that were strategically selected, avoiding those
that had been well exposed by media. The volunteers were instructed to go to other
refugee camps in the surrounding area and to report their needs. Along with bringing
information from the less exposed area, Jalin Merapi actively posted messages on Twitter
urging the donors to bring their aid to Muntilan and Magelang, not to the city of
Yogyakarta which became the centre of attention. When a community living on the
north-eastern side of the mountain refused to evacuate and, consequently, were isolated
from the relief aid due to the police blockade, the information volunteers worked their
way around the blockade and went back with a report. In another case, the public eye was
focused on the refugee camps in the surrounding cities, whereas in fact more than ten
thousands survivors took refuge private houses in Gunung Kidul, 70 kilometres away
from the disaster area. A citizen journalist brought up the issue and succeeded in drawing
medias and publics attention toward them.
The citizen journalists were required to focus on problems that were important to
the survivors. Consequently, in the daily meeting they were encouraged to listen to the
survivors problems, although they may have seemed trivial to outsiders. Furthermore,
articles were not written to get a certain number of hits but to bring the survivors
concerns to light. In the same spirit, the micro-blog channel was used to raise funds for
the pillow for Merapi project whereby public could donate IDR10,000 (approx. USD1)
for material that would be made into a pillow by volunteers. The news section of the web
site covered the refugees need for trash cans and paper wrap for food. The common
interest of Jalin Merapis diverse media channels is its focus on the survivors immediate
needs according to the survivors themselves.
Focusing on the survivors needs
Jalin Merapi learned a lesson when they attempted to connect the survivors and the wider
publics following the earthquake disaster in 2006 in the southern part of Yogyakarta that
killed more than six thousand people. Seeing the disconnection between the supply of aid
and the urgent needs of the survivors, they published print bulletins on alternate days and
distributed them to the refugee camps. The problem was that they published the list of aid
suppliers. Because the survivors needs were so high and the supplies were limited, the
donors and the aid distributors on the list were overwhelmed with requests. Jalin Merapi
was, in turn, reprimanded by the donors.
In 2010, Jalin Merapi decided to publish the needs, whereas the aid supply was
published only occasionally and only if the donor specifically requested it. To solve the
dilemmatic issue of speed and accuracy, Jalin Merapi chooses speed and treats the
information as accurate until proven otherwise. This does not mean that there is no
effort to verify the information. Efforts are made to make sure that the requests are
correct and that the contact person exists and can confirm the request. From the audiences
perspective, the voices of the survivors make the requests real, different from requests
made by humanitarian organisation and the mainstream media. And the publics

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themselves love to see their aid reach the right person or, if possible, to distribute the aid
in person and meet the survivors.
The weakness of this approach is that made-up requests cannot be distinguished
from true requests before aid delivery. In fact, there was a case of a request for a
generator that was later exposed by the donor to be fraudulent. Jalin Merapi published the
story to warn other donors. Another problem it faces is that the requests may be made to
many organisations simultaneously and can be fulfilled redundantly. Jalin Merapi cannot
ascertain if and when a request can be fulfilled and by whom. Although Jalin Merapi
manages the information centre and the aid distribution, the two operations are loosely
connected.
Direct connection
Although supply of information about survivors needs in disaster is an obvious problem
to solve, there are many ways to approach it. The common approach is to rely on the
authorities to source the information. This approach assumes the government and its
agencies can keep abreast of the ever-changing circumstances of the refugees. During the
Mt. Merapi eruption in 2010 the escalation of threat forced the refugees to evacuate three
times, following the expansion of the safe zone threshold from 10 km to 15 km and
finally to 20 km. The number of refugees surged from tens of thousands to about three
hundred thousand people. The sudden change of reality rendered the hard earned data
useless since refugees moved to new places and formed new groups. Furthermore, the
way mass media cover refugees is aimed at creating an informed public, regardless of
their action. Instead of helping the publics to donate themselves, Indonesian mainstream
media like to be the intermediary to whom people donate their money without being
connected with the receiver (Abidin and Kurniawati, 2004; Heychael and Taniago, 2013).
At variance with the media, Jalin Merapi provides information that can be acted upon by
the publics and avoids standing in the way between the publics and the refugees (Dewi
and Nasir, 2012).
Jalin Merapi changes the relationship between the subjects of news reports and the
audiences by providing the opportunity to connect directly with the survivors. The phone
number of the survivor or the volunteer is provided in the news article, in the micro-blog
posts, and in the online live document. Concern over privacy is superseded by a more
important objective, namely to allow the potential donors to contact the refugees. By
calling the potential receiver first, the donors can spend their budget effectively. And
after delivering the aid, the donors can keep themselves updated by maintaining a
connection with the survivors. When the survivors move to other places, the donors know
how to can reach them. My interviews suggest that there are two kinds of donors: one-off
donors and repeat donors. Both kinds of donors, in most cases, relay donations from
their personal and professional networks as well. However, repeat donors feel a stronger
need to contact the survivors directly since they will have to relay aid from their social
network many times. Thus, their direct contact with the survivors helps them to distribute
the entrusted donation.
Conclusion and recommendations

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Taking into account the issue of communication in the engagement of communities in


disaster, we need to go beyond the traditional model of crisis communication in which
messages are transmitted from professionals to the publics. This study shows how the
information volunteers play an important role not only in bringing the publics into contact
with the survivors of disaster, but also in bringing to light the people and the problems
that are overlooked. In this way, we see crisis communication as a social activity in which
different social actors are interacting and contesting for public attention. And we can start
to see participation as a struggle for power (Arnstein, 1969), not merely as an issue of
technical arrangements. Although we see potential in information volunteers of disaster,
we need to recognise also that volunteerism in disaster tends to be a short-lived
engagement and it focuses more on the phase of disaster response, rather than the phases
of mitigation, preparedness, or recovery (Quarantelli, 2003).
To put the issue of citizen participation in the framework of resilience (Haigh and
Amaratungga, 2010), the collaboration between the local people and the wider society in
coping with the disaster is crucial since the capacity of local systems is usually
overwhelmed by it. From this case study, we can draw several recommendations, which
we need to test with more empirical studies in different contexts to assess whether they
are still supported. First, the professional crisis communicators need to collaborate more
with the information volunteers in informing the publics. The mainstream medias
perspective and approach are limited and information volunteers can help see what they
cannot see. Second, the value of crisis information is also determined by the form of
collective action taken by the publics. In this case, donating as a prevalent mode of
engagement by external communities with the affected communities requires a specific,
local, and direct type of information. And third, the transitory nature of volunteerism
necessitates the deeper involvement of the affected communities in managing the
initiative so that their interests are well represented.
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