#SMEM Challenge for 2013: Strategically Monitoring Social Media

Post by: Kim  Stephens

Eye on Flat Panel MonitorOne of the biggest #SMEM challenges for emergency management and public safety organizations is determining whether or not, and increasingly how, they will monitor social media. In the past year we saw a change in mindset: a desire to actively listen versus simply push content to the public. Yet, monitoring can seem like a daunting task.  During large-scale emergency events millions of new posts, pictures and videos  are added to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. every day. How can a small local public health, first response, or emergency management agency sort through all of that? In this post I will outline strategies I have seen employed to effectively deal with this seemingly insurmountable task.

Where do we start?

Numerous questions come to mind when considering monitoring social networks:

  • How ? What software do I need, if any? (And relatedly, how much will that cost?)
  • Who? Who will be doing this work?  Will this only be done when the  EOC is stood up and resources can be shared by all response agencies? or  Will resources be required to monitor social media all the time if we have social accounts?
  •  What is done with the information gleaned from monitoring social media? How is the information shared (if at all) with response partners when there isn’t an EOC or JIC?

Establishing objectives

Each of the questions above are dependent on the objective(s) established by your organization.  The first step is to determine why: Why are we listening? What is the expected outcome? Only then can you  decide what resources you will need, how you will share that information with response partners, and what tools are required.

Your emergency management organization might decide to specify a number of objectives. Some of the more common ones include:

  1.  To determine if the organization’s message is getting across or if conflicting information (rumors) is being conveyed: Are people  confused about what to do (e.g. how long to boil water)?
  2. To determine public sentiment regarding the organization or, during a crisis, about the overall government’s response effort: Are people angry about something that is happening?
  3. To determine the most commonly asked questions and concerns.
  4. To quickly answer direct questions, or questions directed at the community political leadership on topics that involve your organization: Are people asking the Twitter-happy Mayor when debris will be picked up in their neighborhood?
  5. To determine what other organizations are saying, in order to both ensure messages are coordinated, and to amplify mission related content.
  6. To determine the extent of damage and impact of the disaster event. (Advanced)

It should be noted that law enforcement officials might have completely different set of objectives. They might monitor social media to actively look for people (or evidence) from those who have been involved in a crime as well as to enlist their followers in helping them identify suspects. They could also monitor the accounts of a person that has been brought to their attention by members of the community (e.g. a person has been posting strange comments that point to criminal intentions). In this post, however, I will stick to emergency management concepts since that is much more familiar territory for me.

Low Budget Solutions

Of course, part of the strategy for listening or monitoring social media has to include determining who will be responsible for doing these tasks. I recommend you also read the post that describes VOST (Virtual Operations Support Teams) for some ideas on how you can expand your efforts when required. Nonetheless, there are many things that can be done by an organization to make monitoring social media a bit easier, especially if some of it is completed before a crisis.

The following simple steps are based on processes described by emergency managers who have made the most of the free tools at their disposal. Even though these items might seem like obvious courses of action, I have cited them here for a reason.    I have included some basic 101-type info since people often ask these questions.

1. Create Lists and Like Pages of Response Partners: It is important to know and keep track of what other response organizations are saying on social networks, even if (maybe especially if) they are in a neighboring county. If you and your neighbor put out conflicting content, believe me, the public will notice. (This happens in quickly moving events–road closures are a prime example.)

  • On Twitter, set up a list(s) of all “trusted sources” including government agencies, first responders, political leaders,  volunteer organizations and local news media–don’t forget to include federal agencies such as FEMA, EPA and HUD.  Twitter.com explains how to create a list in 4 simple steps.
  • Include social streams of all response partners on your website or Facebook page, so the public can easily find them as well. See a best practice example from Australia: Queensland Police Service Alert, which has the embedded Twitter feeds from their response partners organized by sector: transportation, power and water, etc.
  • On Facebook, “Like” all of these same organizations.

Coordinate Offline: It should be noted that in addition to doing the work online, a good practice is to have every government official responsible for posting to social networks  participate in recurring meetings to talk about strategies and coordination before a disaster event. (How can we ensure information is updated on our social media accounts, simultaneously? How can we share content/intel that we are seeing from the public ?) The speed of social media might require new, or at a minimum, faster coordination processes. 

2. Invest in a smart phone for the person monitoring social media: Smart phones are a great way to monitor your social media presence when you are away from a computer. Both Twitter and Facebook can provide smart phone notifications to the administrator every time the account is mentioned, replied to, re-tweeted, etc. You can also set up a way to receive notifications when other organizations post updates as well.

  • Twitter.com has a great help page on this topic.
  • Facebook has similarly helpful “How-To” page about how to receive push notifications on a mobile device. There is also information here about the Page Manager App that lets admins check on their Page activity, view insights and respond to their audience from their mobile device. This app is only currently available for iPhone and iPad.

3. Read

I once asked the social media manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency how he monitored the agency’s social stream, he simply stated: I read.  Surprisingly, keeping up with what is happening on social media does not necessarily take complicated software, especially if reading is done strategically.   In order to prevent being overwhelmed,  you can limit the content that you look at to some or all of the following:

  •  Read comments and questions directed to your organization. This step is probably the most important: if your organization is actively posting content, more than likely, people will be posting comments and questions…AND they will expect a response.  Reading comments and “@” messages will also allow you to gauge how your efforts are being received.
  • Read what is being posted by your trusted-sources on the list(s) you have created.
  • Read comments and questions posed from the public to your response partners and elected officials.
  • Read information based on keyword searches and hashtags.   This strategy involves searching for key words, such as the name of the event, in order to find pertinent content.
    • During an active event, people often post pictures and video to Twitter (more so than other platforms) and mention the location and /or name of the town. (For specific instructions see Twitter advanced search and the “How-To“).  It is important to note, however, that any early pictures should be treated cautiously. Some folks think it is quite funny to post fake images.
    • Possible search terms: name of agency, name of event, name of municipality.

4. Actively ask for information

There is nothing wrong with asking your followers or the general public for information via your social networks. People often provide valuable situational awareness information to you anyway, for example, posting on your Facebook page: “There are power lines down on Elk Road.” Some organizations have tried to give the public a way to provide information in a more structured way. Good examples of this are the not-so-new USGS’s earthquake detection program  “Did you Feel it?” and the recent Fairfax County Hurricane Sandy Crowdmap that allowed people to post their observations.

Soliciting information is almost the opposite of  “data mining.” Data mining involves  automated computer processes  intended to make sense of or find patterns in vast amounts of content posted to social networks (see this post by Patrick Meier for more info). I suspect that this process will be one of the hottest topics for 2013 as more of these tools (discussed in this previous post)  come online. Nevertheless, if your organization is simply trying to keep up with mentions and comments, then advanced software is probably not necessary…although highly coveted. Coordination and collaboration with your response partners,  however, continue to be some of the best tools in your toolbox.

If you are still reading, let me know if you have established objectives or listening strategies.

Note: A majority of this content came from a post I did for WRHSAC.org.

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9 responses to “#SMEM Challenge for 2013: Strategically Monitoring Social Media

  1. Recently, I have had the opportunity to consider the role of emergency management in looking forward, just over the horizon, at the threats that almost upon us or are currently emerging. Another good reason to “read” about the work of others in forecasting and considering the challenges of the next hazard that we might confront and how we might get at least a little edge on its mitigation or the unique resources that we may need to respond.
    One example, in the book I am currently reading, The Viral Storm : The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolfe, the use of Smart Phones in monitoring outbreaks of new and dangerous microbes by spikes in traffic or crowdsourcing may provide just the edge that we need to identify an epidemic in time to mitigate a deadly pandemic. We are all members of a global club that is monitoring shared threats and offering perspectives on solutions. Exciting times.

    • Thanks for your comment Bob. It is, indeed, a true era of innovation that will change not only the way we communicate with the public but also how we find and respond to emerging threats. Hopefully the emergency management community will seize the opportunity versus of sneer at these new technologies.

  2. Great post Kim, this topic really hits home with me as we are in the middle of developing a tutorial/course on what I tentatively call “EOC SMEM Gatekeeping”. I have witnessed several Canadian public safety EOCs or command centres during a major security event pipe in live/raw streaming feeds of tweets directly onto the op center incident command screens. When I saw this it struck me how risky providing raw SMEM data (potential for misinformation) without any vetting could be to decision makers being barraged with reliable information from other sources….; We plan to formulate a set of training packages that provide some best-practice advice on how to properly exploit this valuable source of SA information by EOC’s.

    Jack Pagotto
    Head/Multiagency Crisis Management S&T
    Canadian Safety & Security Program

    • Thanks Jack, I hope you’ll be able to share the training you develop! I think raw data in the EOC is fine, but without some sort of filter or analysis/context it really doesn’t mean much, does it?

  3. Great post Kim! I particularly like the bit about “reading”. We are developing tools that will help emergency managers sort through the massive amounts of information produced during large scale emergencies and prioritise their reading. Another suggestion would be acquiring tools, developing policies & processes for assessing the credibility of crowdsourced information & training with real world information.

  4. Fascinating post; thanks for sharing your words and providing me with lots of ideas! I’m a medical librarian interested in disaster information (there’s actually a new “Disaster Information Certificate” that I’m working on earning through the Medical Libraries Association), and I think there are lots of ways our information skills can be used in this realm. Our national “Disaster Information” e-,mail list (hosted by the National Library of Medicine) is actually having a conference call on VOSTs on January 10th! More info on the call, which is open to all, can be found at http://disasterinfo.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/dismeetings.html

  5. I’m aware of the call on VOST, that is fantastic. Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you found the post interesting.

  6. Absolutely relevant and excellent post, congrats.

    I’m involved in Social Media, Emergency and both combined activities and projects (unfortunately I can’t disclose) and IMHO yours is the radix of the topic; much before speaking about technology and tools, it comes caring about reasons behind (why, what, how), social dynamics and something as basic as real monitoring (reading) vs. automatic bots activities.

    In addition, I’m involved in a study that analyses the need for 3G – 4G for Emergency Services. Up to now there were few futuristic use cases introduced by visionaries that were easily discarded by officials. Now it’s becoming increasingly aware to Emergency Operation Managers the role of the digital and social environment. This seems to be THE use case for high speed mobile data connection.

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