I’ll be live-blogging tech@state’s Real-Time Awareness throughout the day. To keep tabs on what’s going on, you can check out #techatstate on Twitter, or watch the livestream here: http://www.livestream.com/techstate.
The opening keynote address was given by Craig Fugate, Administrator of FEMA. Fugate discussed the role of social media in disaster response and challenged the conventional wisdom. He led off with a bold statement: “I’m not a big advocate of technology, it’s just a tool to me… I’m in the business of trying to change outcomes.” His talk then followed those two streams: outcomes and technology as a tool.
Fugate discussed the natural cycle of a disaster, in which things start to get better on their own. People who have been struck don’t wait around for the U.S. federal government to swoop in and fix everything. Instead, they start rescue and recovery on their own. As such, you need to ask what outcomes you seek to change by getting involved. For instance, is the outcome you’d like to change the number of survivors?
After Hurricane Katrina, the conventional wisdom was that no one knew the magnitude of the disaster. There is a philosophy that an assessment needs to be performed in order to understand the scope of the disaster and then mobilize assets with precision. Fugute challenged this model, arguing that nothing has changed if a bunch of executives sitting in Washington (with coffee and flush toilets) receive images from the field and explaim “Wow, that’s bad.” It takes time to mobilize resources and there tends to be a 24 hour window, after which people with non-life-threatening injuries will survive on their own. So, if you waste this 24 hour window conducting an assessment and not mobilizing, you will not change the outcome you seek, if your goal is to save more lives.
Speed, Not Precision
Instead, Fugate argues that it’s not precision that matters in emergency response, but rather speed and abundance of responding resources. In a disaster, moving quickly and just being close is good enough. If too many resources are sent, treat the event like an exercise and send the resources home, but don’t sit around waiting for an assessment to determine a precise amount of resources, or you will not achieve your goal of saving lives. This is certainly worth considering at a time when the current rhetoric around government contradicts the “more is better” philosophy.
Trust the Public
The other main point Fugate made was that government has traditionally viewed the public as not trustworthy (e.g. they panic in disasters!). Unless you view the public as a resource and not as a liability, social media will not be helpful. Once you do this, the challenge remains: how do you carry on 2 way conversations in a disaster, without traditional 1:1 interactions?
Beware of Fads
Fugate closed with a plea: don’t get wrapped around a fad. During Hurricane Andrew, social media wasn’t around. In Hurricane Katrina, it barely scratched the surface. Where will we be in 2016? No idea. So, don’t focus on the tool of today, but rather on how people communicate. In Haiti, the US entered with a radio broadcast mentality, but quickly discovered that 1:1 communication through texting was by far the most effective means of communication. If we want to help people following a disaster, we need to look at how the people we are trying to help communicate. We need to work to support the needs of survivors, not the other way around.