Surge Capacity

A couple of days ago, I traveled to Washington to speak at one of the premiere social media and emergency management conferences of the year. The National Capital Region’s Regional Emergency Support Function #15 holds an annual NCRSMEM summit, focusing on new, novel and interesting uses of social media to help respond to and prepare for disasters. If you didn’t have the opportunity to follow the extremely active hashtag, Brandon Greenberg put together an extremely handy-dandy Storify of the day.

It was an amazing day. With speakers from all levels of government and the non-profit world, and topics ranging from Hurricane Sandy to the Moore tornado to the Boston Marathon bombings, I’m sure everyone in the room learned something. While lots of topics came up over and over again, one really stuck out to me: the realization that the resources we bring to bear to respond to disasters, especially around social media, are simply not enough. We simply cannot handle the volume of data, requests and interactions that social media requires to be successfully used during an emergency.

From FEMA requiring more than ten people on social media just for rumor monitoring during Hurricane Sandy to the Red Cross distributing their social media presence to public affairs folks at every local chapter to Boston PD asking for and promptly getting overwhelmed by the amount of crowd-sourced video surveillance being submitted, the story was the same. Heck, I remember when the FBI posted images of the bombers on their website, and it promptly crashed and was out commission for hours due to the insane amount of traffic going to the site.

Government cannot handle the public information side of a disaster anymore. Full stop.

But, as we saw yesterday, neither can the private sector. Now, in all honesty, the situations are different, but when the New York Times website and associated news distribution tools went quiet for nearly an hour, it demonstrated that information dissemination is hard. There are so many technological balancing acts going on that a flaky scheduled update can take down one of the world’s most trusted names in news–during a massive assault by the Egyptian military that killed scores of people. (Read a bit differently? During the worst possible moment.)

But instead of throwing their hands up in the air and declaring that they’d lost, the Times staff took advantage of the distributed nature of the internet and continued to post stories and updates. They just did it on Twitter and Facebook. According to The Verge:

For the next hour, the account tweeted news from Egypt, but as the site remained down, full stories began being published — this time as long updates on the Times’ Facebook page. While live-tweeting is a common way to break news, under normal circumstances, social media is a way to draw people into a site, not a substitute. Indeed, not long after, service was restored, and the pieces were added to the main site.

It is for this reason, and the reason quoted by Boston PD Deputy Commissioner John Daley (that when they asked IT to make regular updates to the website, they were given a timeframe of days to weeks, so they created their own blog), that we’ve updated our emergency public information plan to explicitly call for distributing information dissemination to many digital outlets. We specifically mention Facebook and Twitter, and creating a situation-specific blog, but also explicitly encouraging distribution through other, unmentioned digital channels. We’ve also specifically written in the ability to depend on digital volunteers (like VOST and the Red Cross Digital Volunteers) to surge staff.

Your next emergency will overwhelm your agency. And as we already know, surging during an emergency is impossible. So, what are you doing about it today?

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