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Social Media in Times of Emergency

In the month of August, the East Coast was hit with two natural disasters, one foreseen, Hurricane Irene, and one without notice, the August 23rd earthquake. Though one primary form of established media failed—phone service during the earthquake was interrupted for many, if not most—both government agencies and individual citizens used social media to learn about what was happening and to communicate while each emergency progressed.

As the Congressional Research Service states in its September 06, 2011, publication, “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations,” government bodies turned to social media at three different times for vastly different purposes: first in preparing for a disaster; then in responding; and finally for recovering. Then, there are different platforms through which people access social media, the two most important being mobile (which itself includes three distinct devices: cell phones, smartphones, and, increasingly, tablets), and PC-type platforms. Finally, there are a few critical tasks that governments can achieve through social media: preparing citizens in areas likely to be affected by a disaster; broadcasting real-time information both for affected areas and interested people; receiving real-time data from affected areas; mobilizing and coordinating immediate relief efforts; optimizing recovery activities.

Over the coming weeks, this blog series will explore each of these in detail. This introduction, however, will sketch out which tools government agencies used, how and when they used them, and what they used them for.

Three ways and times to use social media

Here is how the CRS characterizes government agencies’ use of social media before, during, and after an emergency. Detailing certain agencies’ activities in each of these areas will be the focus of the next blog post.

  • Preparing for a disaster: though no one can predict an earthquake days in advance, as this somewhat cheeky video shows, Twitter did give some people notice of the quake’s arrival. The hurricane, however, was widely foreseen, and as word went out on television channels, governments turned also to Twitter and Facebook—as well as email and text messaging—to help citizens prepare for the emergency.
  • Responding during and immediately after the event: government agencies are realizing that people are attuned to their social media streams far more often than they are to almost any other form of media. This is especially the case for SMS messages and other communications that can be received through cellphones. Further, government agencies are recognizing that they can ask people to report on their condition and the condition of their surroundings, the better for government to be able to respond.
  • Recovering from the event in the weeks and months after: the status of infrastructure, operations of schools and government offices, and other affected systems are all being communicated through social media.

Platforms through which people access social media

The CRS makes a special note about the technical limitations of certain technologies—for example, the battery life of tablets and smartphones. One of the posts in this series will examine how the platform through which people are able to access social media has shaped the kind and format of the information that governments need to communicate.

  • Mobile (cell phones, smartphones, and, increasingly, tablets): though this is an important platform for preparation and recovery, it is indispensable for gathering data during an emergency and performing rapid-response activities. Though it is possible to develop event-specific apps and mobile Web sites, many agencies simply turn to the mobile versions of Twitter and/or Facebook, or use the SMS capabilities intrinsic to all cell phones (not only smartphones).
  • PC-type platforms: The level of detail available through PCs is unmatched by mobile devices, which makes it a preferred platform for preparation and recovery. The platform is also ideally suited to providing those outside affected areas with a wealth of information either to allay their concerns or to empower them to take independent action.

Critical tasks that governments can achieve through social media

The final post on this topic will synthesize the final sections of the CRS report, and will detail how specific agencies are using social media on their own and in concert with organizations and individual citizens to:

  • Prepare citizens in areas likely to be affected by a disaster;
  • Broadcast real-time information both for affected areas and interested people;
  • Receive real-time data from affected areas;
  • Mobilize and coordinating immediate relief efforts; and
  • Optimize recovery activities.

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Chris Poirier

I’ll be curious as well: A note for consideration.

One thing I witnessed during the #Irene event was that many individuals, unaffiliated with any official organization and/or government, rushed to social media to “organize” self-response/recovery efforts. I fear this is a new trend in a world where word press, etc is easy to throw up a website in zero time. All of these efforts were not plugged in with state, local, or federal responders/emergency managers/public information officers etc.
My question is will government take proactive steps to identify these sites and people early on and help move them into the emergency management frame work so to avoid self-deployment which can lead to multiple issues: 1) Placing untrained people in danger 2) Duplicative efforts 3) Causing new disasters..many more..this was a finding after Katrina..all of the well intentioned people of the US ran to help but there was no organization and this resulted in many problems for many months. Volunteer management is a MUST in today’s emergency management cycle and social media is a GREAT tool for gov to use in this effort.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

You raise a great point, Chris.

It’s critically important for government agencies to have a clear, easily-identifiable voice in social media so that people can trust the information that they find there. That’s one of the things that I’ll be talking about in the next installment: the need to build the network before it’s needed.

As a preview, I’ll say that Montgomery County, MD, where I live, does a creditable job in that area: they have an email and SMS alert system for residents. They let us know as soon as they know that an emergency is possible, and then imminent. They even do a pretty good job at letting residents know what they need to do (whether that is evacuate or stock up on batteries and playing cards).

Chris Poirier

Also, look to Govlooper Greg Licamele (Fairfax County PIO Shop) he also wrote on this topic about what he’s learned and what Fairfax did: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/web-social-media-metrics-reports-hurricane-irene-and-major

It’s actually a LOT more than just email and SMS alerts..It’s blogs, and organization of requests for assistance, public assistance/individual assistance help, etc. (Lots being done with word press and crowdmap type implementations on the fly.)

Ed Albetski

I recently mentioned elsewhere that in times of disaster complex systems (anything related to computers and cell towers) tend to go down. Keep AM radio in mind. Usually relying on a complex system merely inserts more points of failure. Candles still work when the power goes out.

Julie Chase

The Facebook page at the installation where I was invaluable in giving gov employees direction during Irene. We don’t have sit and wait for the “Official” email to come, telling us to go home and prepare. It was on the installation FB page in a split minute before the PA email was sent out. Most of us were tuning into the FB page to get updates on where the storm was coming in. We worked until about noon, when checked the FB, the notice came out for non-essential personnel to go home. The wind was whipping up too, and about 5,000 or so people headed for cars and van pools to leave. Our tenant command had liberal leave that day and the Monday after, so most of them weren’t there easing the traffic jam. I appreciated the fact we had the installation FB page as direction came quicker, people asked questions and were answered quickly. I was surprised our M*A*S*H-like speaker system didn’t make announcements to those who may have been outside. Everyone looked to social media. Not sure if Uncle Sam liked that much, but it was the same for many snow storms we had last winter. I did feel the earthquake, thought the garbage truck had dropped our dumpster outside. Nothing on the loudspeakers came out about it. We just thought it was a fluke.

Barry Furey

The use of social media for emergency events is both exciting and frightening. From a government perspective, the use of free infrastructure to reach a significant number of citizens simultaneously is extremely attractive. However, assuring that the appropriate message is delivered by and to the appropriate people requires significant upfront coordination. The time to friend or follow is not when the eye of the storm is just down the block. From a practical perspective, broadcasting to devices that are dependent upon commercial electric power and/or wireless networks can impact reliability during severe weather events. Unfortunately, it is during these same weather emergencies that the need for such services is the greatest. According to the FCC, about 44% of Vermont’s cell sites were down as a result of Irene. Even if you are using a mobile device, the battery won’t last forever, so unless you have a 12 volt or solar charger you’ll lose contact during critical phases of an ongoing event. In the industry it’s recognized that there is no single perfect alerting/notification/public information tool. The National Weather Service recently released a document regarding the response (or perhaps lack of response) of citizens in Joplin to tornado sirens. Like any technology, social media can have great success as long as the public is aware of inherent limitations.

Terri Jones

I agree with Barry. I love the social media stuff for disasters but we need to train folks in advance for the “real” sources of information in the same way that we learned “911”…

Joe Flood

Social media is invaluable in a disaster. When the earthquake in DC struck, no one knew exactly what happened. By looking at Twitter, I was able to confirm to my neighbors that it was in fact an earthquake, and not some localized event. For government, that means getting information out ASAP. There’s the temptation to make sure that tweets get “approved” by the public affairs office or other authorities – but that’s never going to work in an emergency. People want information immediately.

Chris Poirier

Everyone is catching on to my concerns as well. Joe is right about people wanting immediate information, but the goal of government should be to provide ACCURATE information and fast. The problem with social media is there is no way to control it, so the government has to deal with getting the right message out, keeping it up to date, AND dispell all misinformation in order to keep things on track. A good commo plan can help with this, but I think many levels of government under estimate the impact of social media and misinformation in disaster situations.