Thursday, May 31, 2012

Post-deployment soul searching ...

I've been back for a couple of days from an operational deployment where I was asked to go and help coordinate emergency information regarding forest fires and threats to communities.
Now, nothing beats getting out of the office and getting to the real world. As a planner at the provincial level and helping to coordinate emergency information at the strategic level, it's very useful to go and get the feel of what's needed, what's practical at the local level. And I sure did!

My mandate was three-fold: 

  1. coordinate comms/emergency information with provincial entities
  2. provide assistance and advice to local officials if requested/needed
  3. act as liaison between provincial authorities and local officials

A few generic lessons reveal themselves (and I don't want to get into too many specific details ... those will come in fulsome debriefs with all parties involved.) ... but I'm okay with general observations: 

  • The primary quality of an effective liaison officer is the ability to listen, be humble, offer advice only when sought ... 
  • Coordination is only possible when all parties involved see a benefit ...
  • The use of social media in emergency management programs on the ground varies greatly between regions and the seat of government
  • Social media monitoring is slowly being recognized as a necessity ... however, few organizations have the surge capability, the right policies and procedures, to operationalize the data gathered ... and to engage effectively with audiences.
It is however, heartening to see the realization of the importance of social networks during crises. Local officials certainly took their first step with putting media briefings on Youtube:

Yes, that is a good first step ... using SM as a crisis comms tool ... this one-way push of info can be effective and lead to broader two-way dialogue and engagement ... You got to start somewhere !

We tried to make as much multimedia materials available on Emergency Management Ontario's Facebook page. It worked ... visits and likes were way up!  So content does matter.

Further observations include: 

  1. Many still see traditional media as the main audience, the key channel to get information to residents in an emergency 
  2. crises/disasters represent fantastic opportunities to reiterate preparedness messages ... this was done masterfully in this case ...
Conclusion: i come back to my job with my enthusiasm for SMEM intact but a bit more balanced by the reality on the ground ... Those of us who are pioneers in the use of emerging technologies in emergency management must remember that current practices have worked well for decades now ... to change them wholesale might not be appropriate ... a gradual approach is necessary to convince senior executives of the benefits of SM for situational awareness, dispelling rumours and reputation management.

I can't end this without mentioning the absolutely fantastic work of fire crews ...on the ground and in the air ... in command posts and on the fire line ... who put everything they've got to protecting property and ensuring the safety of communities ... Innovation and dedication are key in those battles: 
The air ops are a veritable aerial ballet ... planes and helicopters dropping their load with extreme precision to douse or slow down the fires ... spectacular: 

Hats off to the men and women who do this... great stories to tell ! 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hacking for good ... RHOK Toronto coming up

Here's a good cause .... putting your skills and enthusiasm to work and changing the world. A few dozen people will gather in Toronto for the fourth Toronto Random Hacks of Kindness (RHOK) event on June 1 and 2.

Yaser Alyounes explains what's at stake much more clearly than I ever could:

This kind of thing really "RHOKs" my world ... especially when talented and dedicated people tackle issues such as this one.

It never ceases to amaze me what people with the right tech can do ... all the good that can come out of ideas shared in an atmosphere that fosters collaboration, innovation and compassion.

Count me in !

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mission Possible ... holding an #smem congress

Your mission, should you chose to accept it .... is to promote the holding of the first #smem congress.

Now, I'm on a bit of a crusade. I've recently started thinking what it would be like to gather the top 100 people related to the #smem hashtag. (social media in emergency management). There is no limit to what could be achieved in promoting community resilience, effective disaster planning, efficient crisis communications and stimulate further citizen and volunteer involvement, if we could get all of them is a single locale for even just a day. The key: refining the use of social media, mobile technologies and the power of the crowd and the cloud as force multipliers for GOOD ... for safer and stronger cities, towns and countries ... 

I'm thinking we could have groups focusing on:
  • social media in all pillars of EM ...from preparedness to recovery
  • social media as situational enhancement and decision-making support tools
  • crowdsourcing and crisis mapping
  • social media, emergency information and crisis communications

That's just the tip of the SMEM iceberg really ... there are fantastic people out there who share great stories and practices on a daily basis. I'm thinking the synergies that could be gained by increasing the power of online networking with stronger human contacts resulting from a face-to-face, IRL (in real-life) meeting could be the start of a paradigm shift.

So, I call on all of us ... to work our contacts ... make noise, so we can attract the attention and obtain the largess of a white knight ... a giant that could make this a reality ... There must be some benefits from behemoths such as Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and others ... in sponsoring such a gathering ...

I think it'd be easy to form a working group with 5-6 people who could put a list of the top 100 together ...

So, it's mission POSSIBLE ... let's make #smem100 a reality.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Working with great people

I"m lucky that I get to work with great people in, day out ... Frankly, it's one of the things that keeps me motivated to stay a civil servant and have the conviction that I'm contributing to make a difference.

Two projects have recently been completed by my colleagues and involve the prototypical use of social media as emergency preparedness and promotional tools. In this particular case, we're talking out doing things a bit different than the usual governmental stuff to make a good connection with audiences on Youtube.

I'll let you be the judge but I believe the two videos hit the mark ... The first one was produced in partnership with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police to help highlight Police Week 2012. It's about the commitment of police officers to their community.

A very good video whose inspiration came from the "it gets better!" video done by officers of the SFPD.

The second video was inspired by the "Common Craft" style of telling stories simply and in a very visual fashion. It was produced for Emergency Preparedness Week 2012 which concluded today.  Again, very strong work by some of my colleagues to make this happen:

These two projects are a good illustration of the contribution of civil servants to community preparedness and to recognizing the work of those who keep us safe. Good job!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mr. C. goes to Washington and Banff ....

In the last couple of weeks, I've had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm about the use of social media in emergency management with various audiences ...

First, I had the privilege to be invited by a US government agency to go to Washington and talk about the operationalization of info gathered from social media monitoring. As my good friend Jim Garrow called it, the "secret squirrel" meeting, allowed SMEM proponents such as Jim and myself to talk about the benefits of using social networks, not only as communications tools but as situational awareness tools to support decision making.

Without revealing too much are some key points from my presentation and discussion with government and think tank officials: 
  • most organizations are moving into the SM realm by first using these tools as communications channels and for alerting 
  • pioneers are recognizing the key role SM monitoring can have to ensure the creation of a more comprehensive operational picture 
  • examples of crowdsourcing are all around us ... for public health in particular, ... trend is now moving towards also integrating info from the public and not just health professionals
  • social convergence is not just about social networks (see below for more)
  • in an era of diminishing resources, crowdsourced info during disasters, allows emergency managers to deploy these resources more strategically/efficiently
  • key is to be able to first aggregate/collect the info ... then to curate/analyse it and then visualize it so I/C and EOC managers can use these additional sources of info to make decisions 
  • this visualization aspect is growing in importance re: crisis mapping 
  • there are challenges: resources, training and staffing are issues ... as is the question of finding the right spot for SM monitoring within the EOC and even NIMS/IMS/ICS
  • latest frontier is about layering info ... marrying social media data with real-time imagery/mapping capabilities ... based on operational/validated crisis mapping criteria
  • in the end's about ensuring you know what you're looking for (search parameters) and then getting the right tools to analyse/curate/visualize data (Ushahidi/Swift river for example) and then having the human expertise to put the info into context and perspective as decision making support tools ...
All in all, it was indeed a privilege to be asked to contribute to the discussion in Washington.

That was last week, this week I went to Banff to take part in Disaster Forum 2012. I was asked to provide a keynote address on social media and emergency management. I used the occasion to talk more about social convergence ... here's a link to my Prezi. There were about 250 emergency managers, business continuity planners and government officials in the auditorium at the Banff Centre.

After my talk (which was well received ...) i did some thinking and came up with the following mental sticky notes:
  1. never assume that your audience shares your enthusiasm for, or knowledge of, social media ... therefore ... keep things simple ... don't omit the basics
  2. although the overwhelming majority of people have recognized the value of social networks during emergencies ... there are still many obstacles they face in their everyday work to use these new tools: lack of expertise, policy, resources ... 
  3. offer good rationale ...based on benefits for situational awareness and the effectiveness of tools such as Twitter for alerting, when talking about smem
  4. finally ... provide examples, case studies ... and generally material that relates to your audience .... 
I really relish these occasions to talk about smem. The few days in Banff were fantastic ... the conference organizers were extremely supportive and gracious to me and my wife ... the Banff Centre is a spectacular and perfect venue for this type of gathering ...