Friday, February 18, 2011

Social media during emergencies: what's happening now and are we ready?

There was a pretty good post recently by Eric Holderman on the social media tsunami that's coming.
My contention is that there are already quite a few people in the emergency management world who are already surfing the SM wave.

In fact, as I stated in a previous post, we have reached critical mass and organizations of all types, but especially first responders and emergency management agencies, that don't involve themselves in social media are doomed to fail.

The amazingly fast pace of technological evolution, and most importantly, its acceptance by a growing number of people, the omnipresence of social media in more and more people's lives and, surprisingly for some, the increasing engagement by ordinary people who volunteer their time and expertise during a disaster, all mean were are at a major convergence point. Let me explain.

  1. technology ... meaning mobile devices really, GIS-based web and mobile apps, GPS and crisis mapping ... can't forget to mention cameras and videos ... hundreds of millions of people walking around ... being news gatherers and providers of information ... that you can instantly map ... here's our first convergence vector 
  2. social media ... platforms such as Twitter and Facebook ... but also SMS and other forms of "burst communications" allow people to share the info they've gathered "out there" ... geo-tagged for more relevance and use ... these channels are increasingly working both ways ... obviously more emergency management agencies use SM to inform their audiences of incidents and disasters ... but more and more ... these agencies are "mining" the the data provided by tweets and twitpics and all that ... to improve their situational awareness picture ...think of the United States Geological Survey using Twitter to complement its array of seismographs ...
  3. Many thought that the "connected age" would mean that a lot of people would become e-recluse and avoid real world contacts and be very unsociable and not participative ... in fact, studies indicate that people who collaborate online, form or join groups on Facebook or LinkedIn, or chat on twitter ... are MORE likely to repeat that behaviour in the real world when a crisis or disaster occurs ... that explains the phenomenal work done by the IT and GIS people behind the crisismapping phenomenon ... from USHADIDI to CrisisCommons ... they are now a very valuable info and situational awareness tool.
Many examples prove the point: the standard-setting work of the Queensland Police Service during the Australian floods, to CrisisCommons work after the Haiti earthquake, to the essential role and community-based impact of social media in the Boulder Fire,. Things have changed forever.

Not so long ago, the emergency management tent was pretty much the exclusive domain of first responders and emergency managers. Then came the private sector (utilities in particular). The next wave were the NGOs who play a big role on scene now, feeding responders, doing first aid and fulfilling other support functions. Now, it's time to recognize the essential contribution of the next wave of volunteers: the tech savvy, those spurred by social media interaction ... who have the ability, expertise and willingness to help.

From having volunteers perform social media monitoring in your EOC or JIC, to helping post information on your SM accounts or crisis maps, to having the crisis mapping experts help your own GIS technicians, the possibilities are endless.

That's the power of social media ... it brings a certain democratization of emergency management and is certainly a powerful mobilization tool ... look at the situation in Egypt ... The unassuming hero of the Egyptian Revolution, Wahel Ghonim, said it best on a 60 minutes interview:

Why wouldn't you use this mobilization tool to engage your community before, during and after a disaster?

Are there risks? Yes. Some will make mistakes ... but you know what? So do the so-called experts ...

To me, it seems to be a win win situation ... find a way to capture this enthusiasm to your benefit and your response will be improved.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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