Huffpost Technology
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alexander Howard Headshot

Emergency Social Data Summit Highlights the Role of Social Media During Crises

Posted: Updated:

Last week, the Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit in Washington, D.C. presented strong evidence that social media has grown up. Hearing those digital cries for help now means listening to what people say and share on Twitter, Facebook and crowdsourcing platforms like Ushahidi, and then reacting. "We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government, said BrianHumphrey, who started the @LAFD Twitter account for the Los Angeles Fire Department in 2006.

New 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

Social media adds a real-time vector for real-time communications that empowers citizens to share information with government, first responders, media and one another, complementing radio, broadcast or cable TV, printed notices and ham radio networks. If difficult issues of identity, privacy, authentication and culture can be surmounted, the potential for societies to respond and recover from disasters can be significantly enhanced. "You have to listen as well as speak," said Jack Holt, new media strategist at the Department of Defense, leaving behind the old broadcast model. "What we're doing here is crisis mitigation," he said. "Risk communication. We're all neighbors now."

There are immense challenges for first responders, government agencies, non-governmental agencies, media and citizens in this real-time environment, as conflicting reports, privacy concerns and even misinformation can get into the mix. That said, "the more people information is exposed to, the more people correct that information," said Macon Phillips, director of new media at the White House. The crowd that is used to source information about a crisis can in turn be leveraged to verify information. That dynamic was aptly described as "crowdfeeding" by Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships at Ushahidi. His presentation from the Emergency Social Data Summit is embedded below:

If you'd like to watch the Emergency Social Data Summit, high quality videos of the Emergency Crisis Data Summit are on CSPAN.org, which re-broadcast the event on Friday.

Beth Kanter, a noted authority on "networked nonprofits" and social media, worked with Geoff Livingston, Kami Huyse and the Red Cross to organize the summit. Kanter shared out more ways to track the event using social media on her post on emergency social data.

Mobile access to information is paramount

Everyone who can afford to do so carries money, keys and cellphone, as CrisisCommons co-founder Heather Blanchard emphasized in her presentation, embedded below. That makes mobile messaging, particularly though SMS, a key channel for crisis.

In his talk, Fugate emphasized providing citizens actionable crisis data in disaster, especially on mobile. That's the primary reason that his agency rolled out a mobile version of FEMA.gov.

Mobile was tops on the list of technologies that Chris Penn said to keep an eye on. Penn, a VP at Blue Sky Factor and co-founder of PodCamp, also emphasized the potential of GIS and mapping, QR codes and augmented reality to extend the capabilities of people responding to disasters in the future.

While innovative services and platforms do matter, "it's not so much about technology but people," said Robert Scoble, in sharing his impressions of the summit later in the day. He was interviewed by OpenAmplify in the video below, where he shared many examples of challenges and opportunities for technology.

What does government 2.0 mean for crisis response?

As O'Reilly Media's Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent, you can be sure my ears pricked up when the LAFD's Brian Humphrey started talking about it. Opening the doors to innovation is the theme that Tim O'Reilly and Dick O'Neill have chosen for this year's Gov 2.0 means, as Tim put it in an essay in Forbes, enabling government to be "an open platform that allows people inside & outside government to innovate," then you could see and hear many examples of it on stage.

"Gov 2.0 happens when we stop shoveling money and start stacking ingenuity," said Brian Humphrey. As Chris Penn highlighted, Humphrey uses TwitPic on Twitter to help the LAFD with determining the wind direction during fires. Humphrey wondered if a more localized SeeClickFix could message nearby users in a crisis, asking if they'd like to help.

One of the most important platforms for empowering people to help in crises that has emerged in recent years is Ushahidi, as evidenced by Meier's presentation, below, for its role in Haiti. The new local instance there is Noula.ht, which employs Haitians using a combination of platforms.

Today, an instance of Ushahidi is being used to crisismap the Russian wildfires at Russian-Fires.ru, in what Meier described as "the largest crowdsourcing effort Russia has ever seen. More information and context for the instance can be found at Global Voices in" Russian-Fires.ru, First Ushahidi Experience. As Meier explained, a new and free way to set up Ushahidi went live this month at Crowdmap.com. Crowdmap and will enable organizations to deploy Ushahidi in minutes, including the ability to integrate FrontlineSMS.

Meier also acknowledged the need for real-time information filtering, a crucial need for first responders, government and media trying to authenticate and validate crisis reports. One method for addressing this challenge may be through using Swift River, an open source platform for validating crisis data.

The bottom line here is that citizens, government, media and NGOs can collaborate in unprecedented ways using innovative technology. That's one reason, amongst many, that I'm looking forward to hearing Ory Okoloh speak about making states better at the Gov 2.0 Summit in a few weeks.

Social media can and does help

"The public is a resource, not a liability," said Fugate, who tweets at @CraigAtFEMA."Social media's biggest power, that I see, is to empower the public as a resource." Fugate was interviewed by John Solomon on survivors' needs. [HT to Ed O'Keefe at the Washington Post">]

Social media is also far more than a vector to reach milliennials in 2010. "More than 50% of @WhiteHouse Facebook fans are over 35," said Macon Phillips. He emphasized three points to "take advantage of social media opportunity: validate, collaborate and innovate." That's going to be a challenge for many traditional organizations, as around 90% of those surveyed by the Red Cross said their organizations aren't adequately staffed to monitor social media and act on it.

Who owns crisis data? "On Facebook, you own what you post," said Andrew Noyes, Facebook's spokesman. Noyes shared examples of Facebook's role in crises at Facebook.com/disasterrelief. He also shared a timely reminder that searching Facebook updates can be a powerful lens for crisis data, given the torrential downpour that morning that left some D.C. residents seeking aid.

Whither the role of 911 in crisis?

No one on stage or off asserted that social media will replace calling 911 in the case of a crisis. That said, there was a clear sentiment that social media could complement a service that hasn't always come through for citizens.

As the GSA's Gwynne Kostin observed, reacting to Humphey's comment onstage, "Aggravating as it is, 911 will tell you no operator is available. Social media doesn't have a busy signal."

In fact, "in order to speed response many countries do NOT follow the US 911 system," wrote Bart Stidham in his post "Crisis response and SMS systems."

So why, as Chris Penn tweeted, "can't you text to 911 as a short code?" I asked three police departments his question on Twitter. Notably, the @Boston_Police account responded:

"mostly reliability issues. Voice takes precedence over data, etc. and critical messages may not get through in time,"-@Boston_Police

Additionally:

"there are other tech issues such as how would the message get routed to the appt PD. Efforts under way for IP-based 911 network."-@Boston_Police.

That's one to watch.

Crisis Commons and Flooding in Pakistan

As someone who has been working within Crisis Commons since January, I was glad to see the Washington Post cover the RedCross, Twitter and CrisisCommons. Naturally, it was good to see Blanchard's keynote ground the Emergency Social Data Summit in actionable next steps.

For more context on the history of the organization, read co-founder Andrew Turner's excellent post on Crisis Commons and Crisis Congress. The presentations from Blanchard and Meier above offer considerable context for how much the distributed network of volunteers has achieved. This weekend, that same group is working to help with the growing disaster precipitated by the floods in Pakistan. A Crisis Camp in Cambridge, England is focused on assisting the more than 20 million people affected by the flooding. More resources on volunteering are available at Pakistan.Wikia.com.

Multimedia from the Emergency Social Data Summit

Solomon interviewed Wendy Harman about the Emergency Crisis Data Summit for his excellent blog, InCaseOfEmergencyBlog. Harman is the director of social media for the Red Cross. The video is embedded below:

For amazing photos from the Emergency Crisis Data Summit, check out Timothy Wood's photostream on Flickr.

And for a showcase of featured tweets about the Summit, check out 140Care and hy.ly.

From Our Partners