A new Internet site launched this month should make finding that information far easier. AlertNet is being set up by the Reuter Foundation, the charitable arm of the international news agency Reuters. So far, 16 charities have joined AlertNet, with another four expected to sign up soon. Initial backers range from the very large, with Oxfam, to smaller, more specialist organisations such as Merlin and AMREF.
AlertNet will draw on the full strength of Reuters' newsgathering operation. AlertNet has its own editorial team, based in London, which will scan the news wires for stories of natural disasters, political unrest, famine and refugee crises. Throughout the day, the information is updated. Where an emergency merits in-depth analysis, AlertNet will commission a specialist to write it.
Simple headlines appear in the public area of AlertNet, but the meatier information is kept to the private, members' pages. Charity staff have password-protected access, and the news headlines are backed by articles in greater depth as well as archive information such as country profiles, covering everything from demographics to the structure of the government.
The advantage to the relief agencies is the reliability and impartiality of Reuters' reporting, says Stephen Somerville, who is the director of Reuter Foundation and himself a former war correspondent. Reuters journalists are unbiased, which is vital for relief workers. In Chechnya, for example, international aid charities gave humanitarian help to both sides. Biased information may inflame an already delicate situation.
The other plus, according to AlertNet, is that it will save charities time, and money. The service is free, although in return members have to provide minimum information about their own operations and key contact details. Many are expected to put out more. The Reuter Foundation will also be providing a PC for each charity.
Some of the larger relief organisations, such as Oxfam, already have extensive communications networks; some already have news feeds from Reuters. But watching the news wires takes time. AlertNet staff pick up key stories during the working day, while out of hours a computer system filters stories automatically.
Smaller charities could benefit most of all from the news and information on AlertNet. The Reuter Foundation chose the Internet for the service because it is cheap and accessible: even some of the world's most remote corners can now provide a connection.
It is also possible to get on to the Net via a satellite phone, and the site is designed with minimum graphics, outside the public areas, to keep access times to a minimum. Somerville hopes that AlertNet will allow small agencies to gain access to the same quality information offered to large players.
At first, he expects the system to find most use in the head offices: relief agencies will use Reuters data to prepare for operations, or to compile briefings for staff in the field. But as the site grows, he expects more field staff to log in from their operational bases.
According to Dr Chris Besse, of the medical relief agency Merlin, electronic communications will never replace good intelligence on the ground. But it will help. "You cannot become a desk jockey and believe that you can run relief operations from a desk, but in some situations trying to communicate with a satellite phone is inappropriate, and it is expensive. E-mail and the Web is simple, and cheap."
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