What is the state, use and future of emergency social data?

Last year, I asked Govloop about the value proposition for open government data before the first International Open Government Data Conference. The discussion was so rich and helpful for informing my presentation that I’m back again to ask you, the community, for insight.

Next week, the Red Cross will be hosting a discussion of emergency social data in Tampa, Florida. I’m headed to south to sit on a panel that examines the past, present and future of social data, particularly in the context of emergency response or disaster relief. For context, read the report on the first Red Cross emergency social data summit, which highlighted the role of social media during crises.

Research from the Red Cross, embedded below, shows that Web users increasingly rely on social media to seek help in a disaster. “As social media becomes more a part of our daily lives, people are turning to it during emergencies as well,” said FEMA Adminstrator Fugate. “We need to utilize these tools, to the best of our abilities, to engage and inform the public, because no matter how much federal, state and local officials do, we will only be successful if the public is brought in as part of the team.”

Research on Social Media in Crises from the Red Cross

Questions for the Govloop Community

Here’s where you all come in. I’ve been researching and writing about this issue for some time now but your input would be valuable.

What are some of the best practices in using emergency social data? Who is doing it well?

Where do you see the future of social data moving?

Do you ever see a time when there will be a national system for monitoring and responding to social data? Should there be that kind of system?

What will it take for our emergency response community to get to a more coordinated system?

Are emergency response agencies taking this issue seriously?

I look forward to your thoughts.

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Alexander B. Howard

Here’s a recent post to get you all thinking. In “Citizen Tech: Social Media in Disaster Response,” Amy Sample Ward:

Whether it’s direct or indirect content, why do citizens turn to social media in moments of need or disaster? There are three core reasons:
Bandwidth: the simple fact that if we have a very limited amount of time, battery or other opportunity we can reach unlimited numbers of people that can help by posting to social media instead. That’s why the Atlanta councilman used twitter! His mobile phone battery was nearly dead so he chose to send a message to twitter and ask for help as well as for those that couldn’t help to spread the message, instead of calling 911 in the chance that he would end up on hold.

Response: studies show that people expect a response on social media. It is a social space where engaging and interaction is the constant action and so we believe, too, that if we were to need help and support that the community would take action quickly.

Power: lastly, and very importantly, we see our contributions making an impact. The photo or video taken on a phone and then posted to the web can change the conversation, alert news media to issues or new developments, and change the course of response. The same with live information, personal stories from witnesses, and so on.

Darrel W. Cole

The emergency response agencies from FEMA on down are surely taking social media into account because it’s proven to work in not only communicating to the public important information during emergencies but also keeping the public informed of official government actions. One example was in Louisiana during the Gulf Oil Spill, where the state’s Homeland Security (@GOHSEP) did a solid job, and of course we all recall the Haiti earthquake and the impact made there. This idea is also embraced by the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in disaster response training. There will always be some pushback in learning these new tools by government but it appears the value is being recognized.

Sara Estes Cohen

Alex – recently wrote a blog on how to make sense of twitter specifically for these purposes – and calling for the development of an “uber hashtag” to help with the volume of hashtags and tweets during an emergency (by creating an “umbrella hashtag” of sorts…(http://www.thehomelandsecurityblog.com)

Darrel W. Cole

I want to follow up with a more recent example of how social media can play a key role in emergencies for local government agencies. When the major snowstorms and blizzards hit states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and others, agencies for those states (in particular the state DOTs) were doing a tremendous job communicating in real time the many issues faced, sharing information with other states and doing their best to not only inform but keep people safe. Pitching in were others like the Red Cross and FEMA. It was a wonderful example of how far government has come… not only with the emphasis on public communication and engagement, but in collaborating across state lines.

Alexander B. Howard

The “uber hashtag” – interesting piece, Sara! Thank you.

Darrel, thank you for the more recent example. It looks like #Snowmageddon and #Snowpocalypse may have contributed to catalyzing real-time collaboration in government. Unexpected snowball effect there, so to speak.

Allen Sheaprd

Twitter is a great example. It provides real time field reports with only a small risk of “exageration”

IMO, the best part is people do not feel left out or cut off. Being cut off, not knowing will raise the panic level. This has been shown in “Twilight Zone” episodes to real life.

Twitter is also good for helping people find where to go. While its hard to find the local phone number to volunteer help its not hard to find the hastag.

Lets go deeper – prevention and preparation. So many people are on social networks, so many business are on the web, so much class information (NIMS, FEMA, NOAA, CERT, Red Cross, Wilderness First Aid, etc) and soo many rescourses how can social media get people to prepare? “Those who are prepared suffer far less than those who are not” –A Shepard.

We the government are not suppose to shut down. We have to be prepared I.M.O.

Lastly – Emergency Management. If we have citzens who need oxygen, diabetic/heart meds, help getting around, are deaf – they where are they and how many do we plan for? There are social media websites adressing these populations as well as offering neighborhood maps where people can register wihout giving their house number.

These same social sites allow one to track sex offenders – something else that good to know before and after a disaster.

Allen Sheaprd


Hi. Your blogs lists more hastags than coffee options at StarBucks : (#smem, #sm4r, #sm4em, #hsem, #gov20, #egov, #gov2, #crisis, #disaster, #pio, #nws, and then #fatigue)

Why not have a disaster ID for people to follow?

Twitter seems better than facebook because it “broadcasts” the info to whom ever wants to hear it – much like radio does. FaceBook is more one-to-group. Hence Jill in DC may tell aunt Emmy in Iowa about the snow, no electricity, down power lines and taking a neighbor in but not any of the responders or EOC (ermerg. ops center) folks.

One other issue – digital divide. Not everyone has a computer or text on their phone. Family, friends and I do not text. When the power goes out – so does the cable modem – our internet connection.

Sara Estes Cohen

@allen – totally agree…but the problem lies in getting people to use a set hashtag – no matter how much engagement/outreach happens, the hashtag consistently takes on a mind of its own, not to mention, mispellings…

The reason I included so many hashtags was to prove the point…there are so many iterations of the same concept at this time that it’s impossible to ensure your tweet/message goes out to all options…

Allen Sheaprd


Ahh the hastag mispellings – also missing hastag found as one sends the tweet.

Should there be a #event hastag followed by sub tag ?

#GFF-Vol – grand forks flood – volunteers

#GFF-RC – grand forks flood – red cross

#GFF-SA – grand forks flood – Salvation Army

#GFF-NWS – grand forks flood – news

I almost think not. One of the great things about twitter is giving tweets to those not looking for the information. Some one wants to volunteer and then hears about a need to build a handi capped ramp. They are not looking to build a ramp but they hear about it.

You are right. Hash tags take on a mind of their own. I’m suprised there is not more confusion between them. Two or more groups wanting to use the same hash tag.

Laurie J. Van Leuven

Great dialogue! I also have been researching and working on this topic for quite some time. Just as with any new technology, there are early adopters and a variety of strategies being used by local gov’t agencies.

Local jurisdictions and emergency management organizations have adopted varying degrees of social networking strategies. Some localities are using them effectively to distribute information (i.g. Facebook, Twitter and mobile apps). Fewer localities have built an interactive capability where they receive timely information about emergencies directly from the public. Those organizations with a defined social media strategy commonly establish profiles and accounts with a couple social networking sites as a mechanism to distribute information. However, these tactics alone do not maximize the interactive collaboration and content sharing opportunities of truly “social” media. A member of the public seeking incident information would need to “follow” or “friend” numerous different public safety agencies, weather organizations, public works entities, and nongovernmental organizations in order to piece together complete situational awareness. The isolated dialogues and fragmented information can result in fatigue from participants who either spend excessive time establishing and managing profiles on multiple web sites, or members who are missing out completely on pertinent warnings or discussions due to disjointed information sharing and engagement efforts. The result is information overload by the public at a time when the chaos of an emergency requires simplicity.

I am currently working with FEMA as a Fellow sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School where I published my Master’s Thesis on this topic (my home agency is the City of Seattle). I am proposing a wiki template for an urban area that 1) aggregates social media dialogue (via hashtags); 2) highlights and provides official government and NGO information; and 3)provides a forum a

Carol A. Spencer

In response to a request from a governing body member to find a way to promulgate emergency information, I designed “MCUrgent”, Morris County’s shared emergency notification system. MCUrgent messages are posted to FB and Twitter, can be received via SMS using Twitter’s “fast follow” and feed to our home page via a Twitter widget.

Morris County is the lead agency, and we have trained our OEM staff and six towns how to post. We use Hootsuite as the vehicle because of its team member function. The kickoff presentation (flash) is here: http://morriscountynj.gov/learning20/SocialMedia/MCUrgent/index.html.

When fully implemented, 40 agencies will be able to post to MCUrgent in any multi-jurisdictional emergency. Along with training on MCUrgent, we urge municipalities to create their own Twitter feed so that single jurisdiction emergency information can be posted locally.

Our first major test came on December 26 when a State of Emergency was declared across all of NJ. The prior month, there were 188 Facebook post views of MCUrgent. On December 27 alone, there were 4,386.

We decided to wait to launch a full blown marketing campaign until all 39 towns are on board, so these numbers are without any marketing other than an initial press release in September, and then posts to our general FB and Twitter account: MorrisCountyNJ.

(BTW: We developed a list of town hashtags and have a link to the list on MorrisCountyNJ.gov. We hope people will use these, but if I had to guess, certain local tags will develop in an emergency. If so, we’ll modify our list to use those the posting public develops.)