Real Time

Life is speeding up, and communication has to keep pace. NGOs are increasingly under pressure to report and react in real time.

Rapid information means rapid living. Opening up the newspaper in the morning, we already know what the headlines are from having read them online the day before. The events around the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were fed to our devices in real time. Status updates on social networking sites give our friends live updates on what we’re doing. Apps like Transfire allow us to instantaneously translate languages, and thanks to localisation services such as Foursquare, we know which of our friends are currently at Milan airport or which are just up the road. In the social sector, real time constitutes an important, but also ambivalent trend.

For one thing, it greatly helps certain kinds of work: communication services such as Twitter are a good early warning system for crises, since they raise awareness of new situations as they unfold. Thanks to Twitter updates, the US emergency management agency FEMA is able to react to hurricanes 12 to 24 hours faster than before. The live mapping system of the open source software Ushahidi has already proven its reliability during catastrophes hundreds of times over. Aid organisations and local people use it to report information specific to a particular location, which is invaluable for getting an overall view of the situation. Politicians, researchers and activists are able to follow conflicts that arise in sub-Saharan Africa thanks to information that is fed into the CCAPS Conflict Dashboard. In turn, the Sentinel project monitors human rights violations in Darfur in real time. Real time doesn’t necessarily mean “at the same time”, rather it refers to situations where information is gathered and passed on within a period of time that is short enough to allow for an adequate reaction or feedback loop.

Organisations that communicate quickly keep supporters loyal

Real time information also offers people previously considered by the social sector to be aid recipients a chance to achieve a better standard of living, separate from the aid industry. In Kenya, Kilimo Salama sends out current weather forecasts by SMS, meaning better prepared farmers and bigger harvests. Reuters Market Light now publishes current market prices in India, destroying the monopoly on information held by brokers, who before used to cash in on high margins. Real time reports also make the work of aid organisations easier in less life-threatening situations, since they are able to measure the successes or failures of their aid programmes much quicker than before. This direct feedback (see trend Direct Feedback) means that aid projects can be optimised at short notice, even whilst a project is still running (although as yet this has rarely been done). Similarly, quicker reaction is now expected in communication with donors and supporters. In the course of the digitalisation of everyday life, people have become accustomed to information being spread as quickly as the internet permits. Whereas previous generations of donors were content with an organisation’s annual report and rarely put pen to paper or picked up the phone to find out more, contact nowadays is just a click away – and supporters expect answers within a few hours. Institutions can certainly earn some brownie points by reacting quickly to questions. Some even manage to actively involve their supporters, since real time communication means that stories can be told in a participatory way (see  trend Digital Anecdotes). If we donate money to a school in Sierra Leone for example, we can then follow the project’s progress in real time through the updates and pictures posted on social networking sites, the organisation’s website or on the donor platform. In the case of charity:water, you can even watch wells being drilled via live video feed, allowing viewers to be in the thick of the action whilst heavy machinery searches for water in the Democratic Republic of Congo (such methods also help to highlight failures, see trend Productive Failure). These live impressions less about viewing technically perfect recordings than experiencing what it’s like to be part of an event that’s taking place on the other side of the world. Real time transmits the authenticity, spontaneity and empathy of a situation. Live streams are also catching on when it comes to raising awareness. Today, viewers all over the world can “attend” large social sector conferences on their screens – from the NTEN Fundraising Conference to the SOCAP. The same applies to webinars, such as those offered by the Standford Social Innovation Review, which allow far more participants to get involved than standard, private conferences.

Fast catastrophe reports require fast ways to donate

Speed also plays an important role in online fundraising (see trend Online Fundraising). Especially when a catastrophe happens, it’s important that donors are able to act on their impulses to give by supporting an aid organisation either by SMS or via online portals. After the earthquakes in Haiti, nine percent of the US American population donated via SMS, and online donations are gaining in popularity in many countries. The directness of real time communication could also create competition for NGOs: why should a donor not be able to communicate directly with the people they wish to help? Why not offer help to these people directly, rather than going through an NGO? The organisation Give Directly has created a system for precisely this purpose, allowing donors to donate directly into an M-Pesa account of an aid recipient in Kenya.

Faster rates of communication also require a thick skin

Alongside the various positive aspects, real time also presents certain challenges to social organisations. As well as enjoying runaway successes, civil society organisations (CSOs) can also be confronted with floods of criticism, since it has never been easier to spread facts, opinions and rumours. Whereas aid organisations used to be able to more or less protect their image through their annual reports, circular letters and prominent spokespersons, nowadays every internet user is a potential critic. For example, in early 2012, the Komen Foundation was forced to revise its policy following a stream of protest on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. The Knight Foundation also faced its first social media scandal when it was discovered that it had paid a hefty guest speaker’s fee to a controversial journalist. In Germany, the WWF also had to stand its ground in the face of a swarm of online critics, who also attracted the attention of the mass media. It’s therefore essential that social organisations continually monitor online opinion and respond quickly and appropriately in serious cases. Real time therefore means that comments and responses can’t be approved during a slow top-down process, rather they must be handled by many employees at the same time.


Digital communication is fast communication. Today, people don’t just get real time updates on whether their train is on time from their mobile phone. Donors who are left waiting for answers will go elsewhere. Nowadays, people expect feedback and answers to questions within hours; if reports on events and news are not streamed live, then they must be blogged soon after. Experiencing a situation in real time is also an emotional experience: real time communication allows supporters to get involved and remain loyal to the cause. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, the thousands upon thousands of voices raised on social networking sites can be gathered so as to quickly obtain vital information. Although this direct means of communication costs resources, if we want to create a more flexible social sector that can respond better to actual events, it’s surely worth replacing the carrier pigeon with the mobile phone.