Social Media in an Emergency

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr – these social media giants are just a few on a growing list of social networking platforms sprawling across the internet. Millions of people across the world use social media websites to connect, share and interact with others. According to a Pew report, 92 percent of teens in America today report going online daily. With millions of users voluntarily sharing information online, many social media platforms have a constant stream of communication flowing directly from the public. Could the government use this steady stream of data to its advantage?

Justin Kates believes that it could. As the Director for Emergency Management for the City of Nashua, New Hampshire, Kates ran a simulation that examined how state and local governments could use the information generated by social media users to improve emergency response efficiency and effectiveness.

In an interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, Kates detailed the lessons learned from the emergency study and discussed how social media can help government respond to emergencies.

“When we hear about trees down, flooded roadways, and all this other stuff…we may not be getting the best information from our own employees. By having more information out there that helps to confirm these issues in the community, it helps us direct limited resources to the things that are most pressing,” he said. In short, without direct accounts from the public, it is difficult to know which areas in a community need the most attention.

In the event of a catastrophe, social media users generate a “huge waterfall of information,” Kates said. “When you think about a major disaster, think about all the people that have been affected by it and are ultimately providing information via social media,” he explained. From pictures, to statuses, to videos, first-hand accounts of disasters posted on these platforms can give a much more complete picture of an emergency than statistics alone. But as of now, “there is no real definitive technology out there to help sort all this information out,” Kates said.

Determined to harness social media as a tool, Kates coordinated with the Canadian government to create a test emergency scenario known as a CAUSE III exercise. He explained, “The purpose of these exercises is really to look at those new technologies that are out there for responders and public safety officials to utilize in the event of an emergency.” In Kates’ case, he wanted to test how government could use social media to gather more extensive emergency situational awareness.

To study how to use social media, Kates helped construct a fake emergency scenario involving a hurricane heading up the coast. His team also constructed mock social media platforms to post information about the test scenario. “These mock social media platforms allowed our responders to use a closed environment and learn what they should and what they shouldn’t do,” he said.

Over the course of four days, the Nashua government gathered data from the mock-up scenario. What did the Nashua government learn from this exercise? For one, “We really shouldn’t throw people on these platforms that might not have a familiarity with social media tools,” Kates said. To achieve full situational awareness, government officials must be deeply familiar with social media platforms. “This is something that you need to train on, almost the same way that firefighters train on how to go into burning buildings, and police officers handle crime scene incidents,” he said.

Instead of using inexperienced government officials, local governments like Nashua across the country have begun implementing Virtual Operations Support Teams, or VOSTs. These teams of trained, tech-savvy volunteers support emergency management agencies by analyzing data and providing it to them. Because they were familiar with the area, “local volunteers like these captured the information from social media that really helped them analyze the most important posts that needed to be passed along to emergency management,” Kates said.

In addition to VOSTs, the Nashua government tied geospatial information systems with social media data to determine from where the most mock posts were coming. In a real scenario, this would allow local governments to see where the most posts about emergency problems were coming from and, based on locations of large volumes of complaints, determine where responders should be sent first.

Just a few weeks after their experiment, the Nashua government responded to a strong winter storm. Using the lessons learned from the CAUSE III exercise, they were able to implement systems that harnessed social media data for their benefit.

“The more information that we can capture that helps us send our limited resources to go handle different issues in the community, the better off we’re going to be,” Kates said. When analyzed properly, social media can help local governments respond more effectively to serious problems during disasters.

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