Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Social media and public alerting

Events of the past few days (the school shooting in Chardon, OH and the tornadoes of Feb. 28 and 29) have once revealed an emerging trend: people won't wait for authorities to warn friends and family about impending danger or disaster, they'll do it themselves via social networks.

My good friend Jim Garrow made the point rather clearly in his latest blog post: 
In fact, some of the first reports of the shooting can be found on Twitter, posted by students as the shootings were occurring! This was before the school was locked down. Before the school’s emergency alert system was activated. Before the police showed up.
Fact is, our citizens rely less and less on us or official agencies. With the age of social convergence, comes a certain "empowerment" for people, based on this basic equation:
Mobile devices + social networks = empowered citizens + greater data/volunteer mobilization
This is a crucial fact. While official agencies debate on what role to give social networks (especially Twitter) in their alerting and warning strategies, the world is moving on and already uses them daily and for any sort of incident. So, until, and maybe not even then, CMAS gains a strong foothold in the mobile market, and PLAN becomes readily available, official agencies will almost always lag behind. Why? Because all of us have become sensors, alert nodes, and the initiators of our own alert networks.

I'm not discounting CMAS (Commercial Mobile Alert System) and PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network) ... I believe they will play an essential role in the overall alerting and warning systems of the near future ... Again, why? Because, survey after survey indicate that a growing number of people prefer to be alerted and informed via their mobile devices. More on CMAS in the video linked here.

So what are official agencies and governments to do:

  • move at the speed of their audiences (that means speed of Twitter) or be irrelevant
  • use the tools their audiences use (Twitter and text messaging)
  • monitor social media in an aggressive fashion to be able to discern trends, reputational threats and identify/dispel false rumours and information
  • and remember, citizens will always be first ... be first on the scene, be first to warn loved ones and first to put out their opinion about what's happened and your response ...
Now, if that makes you a bit nervous ... it should ... everyday, every incident, every emerging technology and their adoption by the public (Pinterest anyone?) brings new challenges ... but we don't have a choice. We need to keep up to be able to bridge the gap between the public expectations and our own capabilities and policies.

Comments sought and welcome as always ...

1 comment:

  1. I can't help thinking about the provenance of the information.

    It's all easy to analyse this post hoc and say that people knew about it because it was posted on Twitter almost as soon as it happened, but what about all of the false things that are posted millions of times every day?

    It seems we are looking at this in retrospect and seeing that certain tweets turn out to be true events and actually report facts, rather than the noise that twitter really represents.

    For instance, the guy who Tweeted the Bin Laden assassination -- he didn't know what it was, and only in retrospect do we see the significance.

    The question is this; how do we know which tweets are actionable when they happen? How do we tell the truth from the perception of truth? And how do we avoid yelling fire and creating panic when there's no hazard?