When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Doctors Without Borders had 1,300 followers on Twitter. Now, it boasts over 13,000. The Red Cross follower count shot up by just over 40,000 people in the weeks following the quake. If technology wasn’t already transforming the public role of the non-governmental organization, it has now brought many to a point of no return.

Bigger Followings Mean Bigger Responsibility

As Jason Cone, the communications director for Doctors Without Borders, noted during New York’s recent Social Media Week, the earthquake was a “game changer in the way [his organization] thinks about social networks and [their] application.”

“Social media might actually be a means for us to mobilize and overcome some of the real serious obstacles we had been facing,” he said.

Cone was getting at an idea that thinkers in the field had been suggesting before the quake struck: For civil society to evolve alongside technology, organizations must envision ways to better harness new media at all times — not just when disaster strikes.

“How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz”? asked Lokman Tsui at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Non-governmental organizations are taking on new roles as large-scale transmitters of information. This also means that they have a greater responsibility to share news with each other, not only with the population at large. The easier it becomes to disseminate information, the more pressing the call to formally share resources across organizational lines in the name of cooperation.

‘Jamming’ Online for a Safer World

Using digital tools to foster increased collaboration was an important goal of the recent Security Jam, an online forum that convened think tanks, NGOs, governments and citizens to hash out ideas and solutions for making the world a safer place.

While the jam might at first glance seem like a glorified chat room, it was roughly the 50th such event in a series that is run by IBM, a company with a history of facilitating practical solutions. For example, an internal IBM jam in 2006 brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries who posted more than 46,000 ideas, which resulted in 10 new businesses and $100 million in funding.

As Leendert Van Bochoven, a NATO and European Defense Executive at IBM, said: the jams were “to a certain extent born out of frustration where we attended conferences … without attendance of the NGO’s [and] we came to the conclusion [that] if you really want to have a fruitful debate … then we ought to involve all relevant stakeholders.”

Indeed, attending the Security Jam is a lot easier than traveling to a conference — the online location means that interested civilians and NGO workers currently deployed in the field can easily participate. Jams are a little like the anti-Davos in that the number of people sharing information with each other is much larger than at a physical conference, and the technology allows organizers to efficiently zero in on the most buzzed about ideas. They can then call for “bread and butter” plans that can be implemented in the immediate future.

“A physical conference on this scale would be almost impossible and rather inefficient,” said Van Bochoven.

All told, the event elicited 10,000 logins and 4,000 posts from people in 124 countries. It also provided a platform for horizontal communication between leading experts like the State Department’s Anne Marie Slaughter, the executive directors of Human Rights Watch and the World Food Program, and interested citizens. The ideas will now be streamlined into a set of practical proposals to be presented for the leadership of the EU and NATO, among others, at an official event in April.

A Step in the Right Direction

While these new ideas may prove worthwhile, the online forum is obviously no panacea. And when it comes to the digital behavior of most NGOs, those that took part in the jam were probably in the minority.

As Michael Best, an associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Information Technologies and International Development, told me, “the Haiti example has shown that not all civil society groups are ready to leverage the full power of today’s communication and computing systems.”

“in some cases the human network is slow to adapt to the digital network,” he said. “NGOs probably need to better prepare to make full use of these systems as an integrated component of their work, especially at the interface between collaborating organizations where coordination most often breaks down.”

In the hours following the quake in Haiti, many would-be humanitarians wandered aimlessly, unable to get in touch with either each other, or those in need of help. Slowly, by using tools like Twitter, SMS, Skype and the Ushahidi platform, they began to coordinate — locating those in need of help, and discovering who was nearby. This process can, and should, occur at a larger scale — and before, not after, disaster strikes.

Susannah Vila is New York City-based writer, focusing on the intersection of technology and politics. She’s a graduate student at Columbia University, where she’s currently researching the role of information communication technologies in civil society. Get in touch with her at susannah.vila@gmail.com.