Category Archives: collaborative efforts

SMEM chat: Discussing our “Cloud based Collective”

Post by Kim Stephens

This week the Social Media and Emergency Management chat focused internally, asking and answering the question that most groups get to at some point in their existence: what are doing here? As the first ever SMEM camp is set to occur this week in Alexandria, Virginia in conjunction with the NEMA conference, and subsequent camps are scheduled for this year, some of us thought it might be important to put together a community engagement framework. This framework could be designed as a guide for our all-volunteer effort, including how we will work together, our goals, and our code of conduct–if that is indeed needed.

For background info, the framework states the SMEM goals in broad terms:

  • to document and share social media best practices within the practitioner field of EM
  • to help frame policy development, operations and other augmentations of support within domestic crisis management systems
  • to accelerate the incorporation and engagement with social media and accessible technologies within the broader emergency management community.

“The community will do this by establishing SMEM collaboration processes, including ad-hoc small workgroups to support coordination efforts, recruitment into the community, monthly conference calls, bi-annual in person meeting and reaching out to garner support and augment existing efforts. The code of conduct is simply along the lines of play-nice in the sandbox, give credit where credit is due, etc.

The chat itself started with a question about goals and expectations for the upcoming SMEM camp. Responses included:

  • solidify relationships since we will be meeting in person for the first time
  • create further consensus on policy, tactics practices
  • teach new folks who aren’t using SMEM yet; address issues and concerns and advance the dialog on what we’ve learned–push the limit

We posed the question: Is our SMEM group was just a bunch of folks that communicate via a hashtag or a true initiative? The answer, was yes, we are an initiative. But two interesting questions were raised from the group:

  1. “how do we deal with people who want to monetize “it”: meaning both the tag and the initiative. This is a tricky question. We have a lot of people in our group that sell products and services to the emergency management community. It’s a difficult line to walk for those folks, in my opinion, because it’s important to be a part of the conversation, but it also important not to look like you are selling your service all the time. But I think most people in this category that I’ve encountered on the SMEM tag do a great job in this regard.
  2. How do we have genuine conversations on the SMEM tag? Some people complained that the SMEM hashtag on twitter has become an echo chamber and not really a place for good dialog. As an observation and an aside, I think this might be due to the popularity of the tag and I equate it to being at a loud party–sometimes you have to leave the room to have an in-depth conversation. This is why I think these chats are so important.

We discussed the framework itself, outlined above. Several interesting points were made:

  • it will be hard to enforce “rules” with such an open group;
  • Are we diluting sub-committee development for SMEM in other strong associates?
  • Should we have training standards for those of us who do presentations on SMEM?

Some other brainstorming led people to believe maybe we should do following:

  • develop more formalized regional working groups
  • have more in-depth topic specific skype chats
  • drive national conference agendas.
  • influence or impact formal emergency response procedures and policies (e.g. NIMS) to consider social media and crowdsourcing implications.
  • need to demonstrate how SM should be integrated into all aspects of EM not just response and how it benefits ops and planning people not just PIOs
  • Goal: write business case for SM.
  • We need to think about more than just SM but all data streams.

We talk often about how difficult is to change the EM culture for the inclusion of SM. We discussed how traditional training has not yet incorporated SM, and until it does, not much will change. This led to the best quote of the day by FireTracker:

In a way SMEM is like the fire service. You are going to have to carry it into the future kicking and screaming.”

This is a long summary, but  James Hamilton was able to sum up the entire discussion in one tweet when someone asked–”hey, what’d I miss?” He also riffed on my processed affection for this group:

We are an initiative, people need to be nice, don’t pollute the hashtag, Kim loves everyone, next up DC.”

DHS/FEMA Using Web 2.0 to collaborate, share, listen and learn

091120-A-3715G-177

Image by jim.greenhill via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

Through the use of Web 2.0 tools and social media, DHS and FEMA are trying to increase communications and collaboration with the state and local emergency management community and the general public as well. A lot has been written about FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s commitment to social media. It seems that he mentions the importance of the medium in most of his speeches. This week FEMA went “all-in” with the publication of their own blog. The first post on Dec. 14th was from Craig himself. He stated:

At FEMA we have a Facebook pageTwitter pageI tweet and earlier this year we launched our first-ever mobile website, but what we didn’t have was a blog. Well, now that we have one, you’re probably wondering what you can expect. Plain and simple, this will be another tool we’ll use to communicate and let you know what we’re up to. This won’t be another way to put out our press releases – this is a way to communicate directly with you.

The blog also features all of the posts from the Administrator in a tab called Craig’s Corner. Yesterday he wrote about the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

But I think comments from citizens and how FEMA addresses them will be one of the most interesting aspects to watch. They do have a comment policy which states:

This is a moderated blog. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly “off topic” or that promote services or products or contain any links. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. (emphasis added)

But based on the comments already on the post, it is obvious that they will not be dis-allowing critical comments. One commentator stated in reaction to Craig’s post about the tribal summit: “Where was FEMA when the Sioux had a massive power outage due to an ice storm?”  This could serve as an example for local governments trying to engage the public through open forums but fearful of criticisms that might be leveled at their agencies.  In order to have an open dialog, it is necessary to listen to both criticisms and complements.

The second way DHS and FEMA are engaging the emergency management community is through a new web portal called First Responders Communities of Practice. DHS has created a somewhat secure environment– registered users only– where response community members can collaborate to share ideas, lessons learned and best practices.

It won’t surprise you to know that I am most interested in the community of practice called “Making American Safer Through Social Media”. Listed there are social media policy examples; reports, analysis and papers; related news articles, and more. Just the other day I found an excellent report called Social Media on Incidents, Some Lessons Learned by Kris Ericksen.

I think the take-away here is that we all have a lot to learn, and the best way is by sharing and listening. I’m glad DHS and FEMA are providing an environment to do just that.

Four ways social media and interactive technologies are used to prepare, mitigate, and recover from disasters

Flood in Znojmo (2006) 5

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

New technologies such as social media and mobile interactive applications are starting to have an impact in the field of emergency management. The impact is not occurring in just the response phase, as has been widely reported, but also during the preparedness, mitigation and even the recovery phase as well. Here are a few recent examples:

1. Preparedness

During the preparedness phase the real challenge is to make the information compelling so that people pay attention. A few emergency managers are trying to peak the public’s interest by employing interactive game technology and by designing games for use through social media platforms.

  • This November, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, funded by a grant from FEMA and in partnership with the Electronic Visualizations Lab, the National Center for Supercomputering Applications and the Center for Public Safety and Justice, announced the development of an interactive game for children to learn disaster preparedness and response strategies. The first simulation is called: “The Day the Earth Shook” which has a focus on preparing for an earthquake, as the name implies. The players are encouraged to help two avatars build a survival kit, find all the safe and unsafe areas in their home, and learn to protect themselves.
  • Clark Regional Emergency Services, with a game set to kick off Dec. 1, is employing social media to engage adults in preparedness activities. Their game is called #12 Days Prepared. The game will include a different scenario each day for a total of 12 days. From their blog: “Game participants will be asked to answer 2 basic questions: 1. What are the initial actions you would take upon hearing this scenario? 2. How do you think the community should prepare for such an event?” Answers can be submitted through twitter, facebook, email or the blog’s comment section and earn the players raffle tickets.  A drawing at the end of the game will reveal the winners of a few modest prizes.

2. Mitigation

In October, the United State Geological Survey and the National Weather Service announced the first-of-its-kind “online interactive flood warning tool” which is being piloted in the area surrounding Georgia’s Flint River. Although this tool is currently being used primarily as an early warning system, hopefully, the information about potential threats will help the surrounding communities make better decisions with regard to zoning in order to mitigate future losses.

The Flood Inundation Mapping product is an interactive web-based tool that shows the extent and depth of flood waters over given land areas. These maps enable management officials and residents to see where the potential threat of floodwaters is the highest. Other monitoring tools that provide flood information include streamgages, which provide real time data via satellites to the USGS and NWS for many purposes, including water supply, drought monitoring, and flood warnings. Relative to real time streamgage readings, the Flood Inundation Maps illustrate where floodwaters are expected to travel based upon NWS flood forecasts.

In mitigation of another kind, against school violence as a result or consequence of bullying, Frontline SMS has a new mobile reporting tool called “bully proof“. This system was designed to allow student to send anonymous text messages to school administrators about incidents of bullying or even to report incidences of violence as they happen real-time. The software is free and open source.

3. Recovery/Response

This November, the Town of Davie, Florida announced the application of new technologies as part of  their infrastructure branch plan for response and restoration efforts in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. The plan has two main elements: “1. the pre-scripting of response and recovery actions; and (2) the utilization of electronic project-management tools rooted in GIS.”  The project management tools consists of both a mobile damage assessment resource tool (MDART) and Command Center GIS (CCGIS).  Their application brings the following capabilities:

  • “An automated and electronic field inventory of damage, featuring easy-to-use GIS field tools.
  • Real-time visualization and mapping within the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the damage-assessment data collected in the field.
  • A real-time “running tally” and assessment of the extent of the damage, including real-time progress tracking of field crews, built-in and automated cost-for-replacement calculations, and the CCGIS Dashboard Toolkit.
  • Command Center incident response, decision making and immediate planning using information coming into the EOC from MDART.
  • Streamlined and electronic reporting for FEMA…
  • A transparent government toolbox featuring a mapping portal solution to make damage inventory and assessment data available to the public and media.”

It seems like the next few years will bring about many changes in the EM field with new technologies playing an ever increasing role in communications, data collection/distribution and information management. Current students majoring in EM might even consider a minor in ICT: information, communication and technology.

Related Articles

Is Public Participation in Emergency Management a Problem or a Solution?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The use of social media and Gov 2.0 by government agencies should be viewed as not only a new means of informing the public, but also as an opportunity for the public to participate  in the decision-making process.  In the emergency management field, these new technologies have presented opportunities for direct public participation during crises, notably with information curation, collation, and distribution.  In the U.S. we saw spontaneous applications in Boulder, CO a few months ago in connection with local wildfires that threatened the urban dwellers.

The key question is: when it comes to actually influencing government decision-making, are citizens able to leverage social media in order to have an impact? As I have mentioned before, after the Deep WaterHorizon Oil Spill Admiral Thad Allen said “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.”

Ladder of Participation by: Sherri Arnstein

Ladder of Participation: By Sherry Arnstein

I noticed two points of view: those who see public participation as a problem to be solved and those who view this new form of participation as an opportunity to be seized. I commented on this point to my esteemed colleague Claire B. Rubin who quickly corrected me: She indicated that this issue did not just arise with the creation of social media but goes back many decades.  She pointed me to an article dated 1969: “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” by Sherry R. Arnstein. Claire states: “I think there are at least two aspects worth thinking about:  (1.) attitudes toward citizens and their involvement and (2.) organizational culture.”  See the ladder diagram, which essentially is a continuum of power sharing (or not.)

Claire indicated that “…the fundamental issue is how open and collaborative an organization wants to be.  When it is a public agency you would expect it to both serve and respect the views/needs of its citizens. But when the culture is command and control — military, fire, police – their training and orientation is to keep things close to the vest and not open up for collaboration.”

With regard to the second point about organizational culture, Bill Brantley, in the post, “Without Engagement Gov. 2.0 Will Fail” notices some of the same issues:  “For people who are on the cutting edge of the Gov 2.0 movement, we often forget that a majority of government employees are still not enthusiastic about the potential of the new social networking technologies in their workplace. Now many of these folks are using Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. to keep up with their family and friends but haven’t made that conceptual leap from using these tools at their job.” Part of the reason lies in concerns over security. Two reports out earlier this year, one conducted by Hewlett Packard and the other by the National Association of State CIOs Social Media Working group (NASCIO), had large number of respondents indicating that security concerns were a barrier to Gov 2.0 adoption.

So how high have we climbed up that ladder? It is interesting to note that some of us seem to be stuck on the third rung: “informing”.  Ms. Arnstein made an observation that could have been written today: …too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information-from official to citizens-with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed ‘for their benefit’.”

Recent disaster experiences in the U.S. demonstrate that the public is demanding more control. While the new information technologies make it easier to keep the public informed, the public now has an expectation that you are listening through this new “feedback” loop; that responsible agencies are paying attention to them; and answers will be provided. The last two items in this sequence are new and important to consider.  During the BP Gulf Oil Spill an open call for solutions was not necessarily proffered, but 123,000 suggestions were received nonetheless, according to this USA Today article. Gerald Baron issues a warning to emergency managers in this blog post to plan ahead for this new form of citizen engagement:

So you are involved as Incident Commander or Public Information Officer  for a large disaster or crisis, take heed of these new expectations. As an event grows in scope and media attention, it may be  filled with challenges. What will the interested public do? We know now that they will come to you by phone, email, web form, text message, social media sites and every conceivable way and they will say: “I have an idea and you should pay attention to it.” Then the media will be there and the idea person will say: “I gave them a dynamite idea, it is certain to solve their big problem, but no one even got back to me to say they are paying attention. These people don’t care about solving this problem.” Do you think that won’t happen to you? Do you think that will only happen to companies? Not a chance.

FEMA’s S.A.V.E.R. platform: Situational Awareness Viewer for Emergency Response

Map of regions of the Federal Emergency Manage...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Recently I wrote a post entitled Resource Mapping to Foster Community Resilience. In it I proposed an integrated platform that post-disaster would provide citizens, private companies and government agencies with access to pertinent information displayed in an interactive map. I suggested that both citizens and the private sector be able to contribute data, not just government agencies as is the case with existing government-developed platforms.  Several people wrote in with examples of this very concept being put into practice in Africa. J.M. Cooper wrote: “I’m a disaster manager working for the UN in East Africa…my office is working with various organizations, public and private sector, to do exactly what is being suggested.”

Doug Ragan commented:

I think the idea of Resource Mapping for Community Resilience is a great one, and is as well something that many communities have been doing…

In talking with the MapKibera folk (a mapping project in a large slum in Kenya) I see the questions being asked as the next step beyond just using these mapping processes in disasters, but looking about how they fit into increasing the resilience of communities to withstand disasters, and as well using mapping in their everyday lives. The challenges that MapKibera are now faced with are how to increase the capacity of community members in slums to maintain, use and further advance the mapping systems, versus being dependent on outside expertise. In the end, if they can do so, they will assist the community in dealing with and preparing for disasters independently. And, in the end, is that not what we want?

Recently, Harry Colestock, an emergency manager in Virginia, wrote to tell me: “FEMA is constructing a geospatial tool called SAVER (Situational Awareness Viewer for Emergency Response”–not to be confused with their other SAVER program (System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders).”This tool will be all things to all people in a disaster, from disaster survivors who can find out if private sector locations are open or closed to senior decision makers who can view large areas for critical infrastructure restoration prioritization. It is not in the “ready for prime time” mode, but the concept appears workable, and the resources of FEMA/DHS to encourage private partners to share data is considerable.”

So either I’m ahead of my time or out of the loop.

For more info on SAVER you can follow the link to a slide-share put together by Heather Blanchard of CrisisCommons; or just read below where I have summarized liberally.

  1. Data will be incorporated into a viewable format  in order to provide for data sharing with the goal of providing a common operating picture for all “emergency management partners”.
  2. Existing viewers such as “LogViz” will be incorporated.
  3. ESRI based
  4. Example capabilities: US Grid search tool; blue force tracking; SMS text message geo-locating; and help for decision making including everything from shelter support to location of points of distribution (PODs).

When Heather prepared this slideshare about a month ago, FEMA was looking for assistance with identifying the following: which data feeds to include; data definitions from data owners; and suggestions and recommendations on how best to use the data. (I’m not sure if they are still looking for this kind of input but I imagine they are.)

I hope the tool is built/designed so  local communities will be able to take ownership of the project and be sure that information vital to them is included.  If not, locals might view it as one more demand from “on-high” to “feed the machine.”  Locals know their community best, obviously, and would be able to persuade the private sector in their area of the importance of contributing and participating. FEMA may have “resources…to encourage private partners to share data,” as Harry suggested, but they don’t have the relationships with the millions of small businesses vital to local areas; only local offices of emergency management have that. The Virtual Alabama project is an example of a bottom-up approach and they are also looking to include private sector data. Duplication of effort aside, at least everyone seems to be moving in the same direction.

Monitoring Social Media during a crisis: What tools are available?

Social Media Monitoring Wordle

Image by Eric Schwartzman via Flickr

Post by: Kim Stephens

Monitoring social media has become a big business. In the corporate world, companies have come to realize that in order to protect their brand they need to monitor what people are saying about them in real time. The emergency management community is beginning to understand the importance of monitoring social media as well. Over a year ago Jeannette Sutton wrote a prophetic piece in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management entitled: Social Media Monitoring and the Democratic National Convention.” In the piece she outlined 3 key reasons why monitoring social media is important for emergency managers:

1. Monitor Communication Effectiveness: “If all disasters are local, local perceptions about the effectiveness of a response, the ability of an organization to meet needs, and the emergence of new problems will become the major thrust of news coverage. New strategies will need to be developed to monitor breaking news that is driven by local citizens using a variety of communication systems. Attention must be given to social media communications at all phases of disaster to assess the effectiveness of risk communication, public protective action taking, and ongoing community recovery.”

2.In future disaster events those who sit in the media monitoring seat will become a key source of information for both public relations and operations in disaster.

3. By monitoring social media, emergency response organizations should be able to respond more quickly to misinformation. Current processes are “slow and cumbersome.

Monitoring tools are available for purchase through numerous vendors: Radian6, Sysomos, PIER, Jive, Telligent, Awareness, LiveWorld and many others; but for local communities with limited budgets there are alternatives that are completely free. Most of the free tools do not provide analytics, but they do provide the user with an opportunity to see numerous newsfeeds, twitter searches and blog posts all on one page called a dashboard. Four dashboards that might be of use:

1. Netvibes: Describes themselves as “Dashboard everything”. This is a customizable homepage that you can tailor by subject. It works by adding your choice of widgets to your page; for example,  a newsfeed from a national news service, your twitter account, your facebook account, your email account, RSS Feeds from your local newspaper if they are online (just add the URL). Search engines are also available through the page so you don’t have to leave the site in order to search for additional content. They boast a choice of 180,000 widgets. The system does not have an “alerts” feature such as Google alerts, but by live-streaming content by topic, you might not miss the feature. You can also update your social media accounts directly from the page.

2. Addictomatic: This service allows you to type in a key word, I tried Haiti, and see all of the results from the various live sites on the web. Information is available from news organizations, blog posts, video services such as YouTube and Vimeo, etc., as well as images from Flickr and other pictures sharing sites. Addictomatic doesn’t have near as many widgets to choose from as Netvibes and isn’t really as customizable–I couldn’t find a way to add my own twitter feed, facebook account or even RSS feeds. However, it can give you a quick look at a specific topic from many sources. Not being able to add password protected sites might also be a plus from some organizations worried about security.

3. iGoogle–Of course google is going to be part of this game. This dashboard is similar to Netvibes, but has just a few less features. They call “widgets” gadgets for some reason. Their description: “iGoogle lets you create a personalized homepage that contains a Google search box at the top, and your choice of any number of gadgets below. Gadgets come in lots of different forms and provide access to activities and information from all across the web, without ever having to leave your iGoogle page. Here are some things you can do with gadgets:

  • View your latest Gmail messages
  • Read headlines from Google News and other top news sources
  • Check out weather forecasts, stock quotes, and movie showtimes
  • Store bookmarks for quick access to your favorite sites from any computer
  • Design your own gadget.”

Some have complained that it is labor intensive to set up.  I just found iGoogle more limiting that Netvibes and less visually pleasing.

4. HootSuite: Called a social networking “client”, HootSuite allows users to manage their major social networking sites and track statistics. Being able to update facebook and twitter on one page is a plus, and this is available “on the go” for smart phone users. As far as monitoring is concerned, you can track “mentions” and key words. The free version only allows for 5 social networks and 2 RSS feeds, but for $6.00/month users can upgrade to unlimited networks and unlimited RSS and stats. Some people swear by the service, but I’m not a fan of the user interface.

None of these sites are the complete answer, but since they are free its worth a try to see if any of them work your organization. There are others I didn’t mention, see some of the stories below for more info.

See also “How to Build Your Own Social Media Monitoring On a Shoestring.”

Crisis Mapping and Collaboration–Alabama leads the pack

Alabama Department of Homeland Security

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Collaboration platforms for emergency response organizations are generally designed to accomplish one or more of the following: 1. Provide a common operating picture/situational awareness; 2. Provide a means to determine the deployment of resources in order to prevent duplication of effort; and 3. To provide a means to aggregate data into a format that enables real-time analysis. In Alabama, they are  adding a couple more endeavors to that list, including providing accurate and timely information to, and eventually from the public.

Innovation happens for a reason, either you have a specific problem that needs to be addressed and/or you have to a champion or a “sparkplug” who pushes the cause. Virtual Alabama (click the link to watch a great 3 min. video) was first initiated in October of 2005 at the request of the Governor.  The Alabama Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the project as one that was “initiated… to access new technologies in 3D visualization. At the request of Governor Bob Riley, AL DHS began exploring and identifying ways to leverage existing state asset imagery and infrastructure data into a visualization tool that is affordable, scalable, maintainable, and capable of employing the power of existing and evolving internet based applications. As a result, the Virtual Alabama program was created.” It was built using a customizable/enterprise version of Google Earth that allows for the inclusion of data overlays. The data can include block by block information such as location of fire hydrants all the way up to flood-plain visualization.

The system spurred Virtual Louisiana and led to the creation of  Virtual USA, yet the Alabamans have not rested on their laurels. What they have come to understand is that although this information was available to first responders, there needed to be a way for the public to have access. To address this concern they are about to roll out  a “portal based environment” designed for public access which will even be available as a mobile application.  The end-goal is to have a single interface where private business information, critical to citizens during a crisis, is available:

  • data from gas-stations (e.g. whether of not they are out of fuel)
  • hotel capacity and pet policy information
  • available kennels and veterinarians
  • grocery stores information, etc.

They are also considering how they will integrate situational awareness information provided by the citizens, such as video or pictures from the scene of a disaster. The opportunity to include eyewitness accounts is appealing, but has to be understood within the context of the policy limitations of a Government agency; this has led to the development of a computer “filter” that would be able to recognize things such as nudity or  graphic imagery not suitable for public distribution. I’m not sure when this feature will be implemented, but the public app is in the vulnerability testing phase and should be available the first part of December.

Alabama also has been innovative in its proactive use of technology volunteers. Recognizing that its much more expensive to clean up after a severed gas-line than it is to map it in the fist place, they have enlisted the help of the Auburn University GIS students to plot GPS coordinates of utility lines along the coast. This data would be available to heavy equipment operators after a hurricane, for example, through either a mobile app on a smart phone, or on a mobile computer. Since the data already exist on the platform it can be used offline, another great feature.

Students in the Auburn Management Information Systems’ Department also were enlisted  by AL DHS to help with a “report suspicious activity” feature available on the new citizen portal, also available as a mobile application. Taken from the Department of Homeland Security’s “see something, say something” campaign, this feature will allow citizens to upload video, pics or information to a “government eyes-only” law enforcement site. This takes citizen “tips” line to a whole new level.

I look forward to seeing all of these new feature available to the citizens of Alabama. Let’s hope other states are watching and learning.

Thanks to Shane Hammett , the Virtual Alabama Team Leader for the information. Questions can be directed to Alabama’s Criminal Justice Information Center.

Social media during crisis response: Five general lessons for emergency managers

Post by: Kim Stephens

I want to make some generalizations regarding lessons the emergency management community is learning from the deployment of social media during crises. These lessons are mostly based on domestic events, since the international response framework has decidedly different challenges/opportunities than the US system, although we are starting to see some of the efforts in the international humanitarian crisis mapping community “bleed” into the US. This isn’t a dissertation, just some observations.

1. If you build it, they will come: If you set up systems to engage the public through social media, don’t be surprised when the public responds.

According to the report “Unending Flow” by Gerald Baron, mentioned in an earlier posting, at the height of the DeepWater Horizon Oil Spill Response “… typically 5 to 7 responders per day were focused on managing inquiries averaging nearly 1000 inquiries PER DAY (emphasis added). In some periods of high activity as many as 7 inquiries per minute were received.”  (page 16)

Now the question becomes, what do you do with all of that information?  The software the Coast Guard Command employed, called PIER, did allow them to track  and identify trending topics. Most of the inquiries could easily be categorized and therefore easily answered with pre-approved/pre-scripted responses. However, what about those few inquiries that could become valuable situational awareness data?  A direct link between the Joint Information Center and the Unified Command, according to Mr. Baron, will be a key in all response efforts to successful integration of this potentially valuable information.

  • Lesson 1.1: Response organizations, when deploying social media, need to be able to ramp up their public information/communications staff to engage the public in a timely manner.
  • Lesson 1.2: The information that comes from the public could be actionable intelligence, the Incident Command System should allow for that  information to flow back to the incident command staff.
  • Lesson 1.3: Your FaceBook page, twitter account, email account, website, you name it, will “blow up” (as the kids say). Ensure you have enough computing power to handle large influxes.
  • Lesson 1.4: Be prepared to continue building: widgets, video-feeds, live chats with responders…the list goes into infinity because who knows what new tools will be available for the next response. What we do know is that the public will want access to information through that yet unknowable tool. Hint, hint: iPad app.

2. If you don’t build it, they will come anyway. People will turn to social media tools to both provide and find information from any and all sources.

This point is illustrated by “Amanda’s Map“. The map was curated by Amanda Pingel, a University of Colorado student, during the Colorado Wildfires this past September and listed information such as fire areas, evacuation areas, response efforts, etc. This map had 1,826, 905  views. This was not the only map curated by civilians, there were at least 3 others with widespread distribution.

  • Lesson 2.1: If you don’t provide interactive, real-time information to the public they will find it elsewhere and then wonder–loudly, “Why didn’t the government provide this information!” Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recently said:
    “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.”
  • Lesson 2.2: Publicly curated information isn’t by definition “wrong”. We need to find a way to embrace this new-found power in the public. People will use this data to help themselves and others which will therefore ultimately result in more resilient communities.

3. Information moves fast. Cumbersome approval processes will ensure you are never the first ones reporting anything.

Referring to the Oil Spill, Mr. Baron points out “As the information flow and approval process became increasingly bureaucratic and approval times lagged, The External Affairs and JIC teams were often caught behind by the rapid nature of social media information sharing.” As a key lesson, Mr. Baron implores:

Lesson 3.1: “…response leaders must vigorously resist the inherent tendency to add overly burdensome layers of vetting and approval. As the approval process calcified by a stronger and stronger top-down presence, the value of the External Affairs and JIC operation diminished to the point where in many issues and situations it had no voice.”

4. Go where the people are: Social Media can be used as a form of rapid communication and save lives, especially with populations that use social networking extensively.

From a headline today (10-20-10): “Social Media Network Helps Prevent Disaster”. “Aid officials in the Philippines have credited social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with keeping the number of deaths caused by Typhoon Megi to only 10 so far. Thousands of people were persuaded to move to safer places or take precautionary measures before Megi struck on 18 October, officials say.   Alexander Rosete, a spokesman for the Philippines National Red Cross, told IRIN. “Now that we are using the Internet, the services are free of charge, and we send messages at no cost to us. It’s also more reliable and faster because nearly everyone’s on social networking sites.” The Philippines have also been described as the “text messaging capital of the world”.

  • Lesson 4.1: People will respond to alerts through social networking communication systems, especially if this is how they are used to receiving information. This, would be a lesson of particular importance for emergency managers of Colleges and Universities. I would think the American college student population rivals the Philippines in terms of social media usage. All University or Community College’s communications plans should include social media and text messaging as a way to quickly reach the student population. (In fact, text messaging alert services are almost ubiquitous at Universities).
  • Lesson 4.2: How people receive information is changing. Response personnel need to know and understand what means their own community uses to stay informed.

5. Especially at the local level, emergency managers shouldn’t be surprised if people with highly technical skills show up and offer to help.

Social media has provided new opportunities for people with technical skills to aid response organizations. Some volunteers are interested in passing out sandwiches to survivors, and others are interested in creating a multi-dimensional, 3D, geo-spatial application that models the unfolding events in real time. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. A case in point is the San Bruno Fire. Luke Beckman, a former Director of Disaster Operations for InStEDD, knew the capabilities he and others could bring to the response. Due to a personal relationship with that response community, he and a team of about 3-5 others volunteered their technical skills to be made of use by the incident command. With regard to their contribution: he states: “Mapping personnel … allow[ed] certain members of the incident command team to have better situational awareness, and to allow fire investigators and search teams to have a more accurate picture of the scene prior to deployment.” Being able to tap these highly technical volunteers, he laments, is not a part of the localities Standard Operating Procedures–”but it could be.

They learned many lessons in employing these volunteers, I’ll just highlight a few

  • 5.1 Know and understand who is in your community with highly technical skills that you might be able to call on during a response. The San Bruno response personnel only knew of these folks through “tenuous” connections. When the call went out for others to volunteer it was done on a Friday night to office phones-well after people had left. These people indicated they have would helped if they would have received notification.
  • 5.2 At a minimum, know and understand how to contact these individuals and vise versa.  A private company with highly technically skilled employees (Cisco is mentioned) wanted to help, and even tried calling numerous times, but couldn’t get through; phones were tied up and they did not know how else to reach emergency personnel.
  • 5.3 Include these community technical resources in your planning and  exercise activities as well as in your Standard Operating Procedures. Trying to incorporate their services during the middle of a response effort is fair at best. If they cannot show up during normal business hours for exercises, but would be able to donate time during a response, find a way to simulate their contributions.

I’m afraid this posting could go on for 100 pages, but I find these to be some of the more salient lessons that have come out of, what seems to be “the year of social media”. Let me know which lessons I missed.

Resource Mapping to Foster Community Resilience: Can Crisis Mappers be Proactive?

Post by: Kim Stephens

The crisis mapping volunteer community and the United Nations are trying to develop more formal processes to create technical bridges between formal response organizations and the volunteer community. They also want to “cross-translate and cross-populate information especially after a sudden onset disaster or crisis, ” according this this source Cross-fertilisation of UN Common Operational Datasets and Crisismapping.

While these efforts may be a great step for those two communities, I do not think these effort apply to crises and disasters  in the US.  Here in the U.S.. the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) is designing resources for mapping and displaying crisis data for use by and for designated response personnel.  More specifically, Virtual USA is a platform designed to aid interoperability by allowing cross-state and cross-agency sharing of data .  So far, this system has been deployed to only a few states so outcomes are not yet well known.  In the private sector, major retailers, such as WalMart, are determining how they can incorporate their data (e.g., stores open in the impacted areas, donation shipments, etc.) into this platform.  To date, the platform is not public and has limited ability (mostly due to organizational issues) to incorporate information collected and curated by the volunteer community.

The big question: Can a system be created that supplements rather than supplants already existing emergency management operations in the US, and can it be designed to include public/volunteer participation?

First there is the issue of timing for the start of a crisis mapping effort. Erle Schuyler has made an interesting point when he said: “Crisis Mapping” is an inherently reactive practice. The disaster, whatever it is, has already happened by the time the mapping starts, which is almost by definition, the worst point in time to do anything. The best time to map a disaster, naturally, is before the disaster occurs.”

His point aligns with a concept I’ve been pondering: Resource Mapping for Community Resilience. Its somewhat simple on the surface:

  1. The map would be divided into vital resources with  pre-determined categories: food (local grocery stores); shelter (local hotels,motels, and even designated shelter locations); home improvement/hardware stores; hospitals & clinics; public buildings such as schools. Additionally, it could include vulnerable communities, such as retirement or nursing homes.
  2. The map would be readily available to the entire community–not just the responders.  It could be stored on the website of local or state emergency management agencies,  or with Red Cross chapters, which would enhance trust among the users. If the local emergency management agencies sanction it (or buy into the process), they could house the info on their servers. ( Decisions about how to update the information would have to be worked out.)
  3. Local businesses and national chains would be encouraged to participate by verifying location information, for example, and they should be encouraged to add their own data.

How would this work? In the event of a crisis, or even in the days before a known threat (e.g. hurricane or winter storm) retailers would be encouraged to update their “status” (e.g. store closed until further notice, or, store received no damage but will be open with limited hours; or store severely damaged, etc.). The same would apply for public buildings; for example, posting the note that schools are closed today.  These updates could easily be done from any location by authorized personnel.

Advantages of this system: The issue of verification is reduced, especially, if the retailers do the reporting.  No retailer would say they had damage to their store if they did not. If orange is the color demonstrating damage, one look at the map would enable both the public and response personnel a visualization of the impacted area.

There are several roles for volunteers, especially local volunteers.  Local trusted volunteers, such as CERT team members or the “Net Guard” could be recruited to:

  1. Help vital businesses understand the need to participate
  2. Help plot information on the community map in the preparedness phase
  3. Update information about the community after the crisis (especially if the business has not done so and is damaged/closed, for example)

More technically skilled volunteers will be needed to create applications potentially on already existing platforms, such as OpenStreetMap, or maybe even Google Maps. Data entry forms, etc. will need to be created along with the ability to show these maps for an entire state. A mobile application would be ideal, as well.

Some Key Challenges:

  1. Businesses may not want to put information about how long they will be closed, since that might affect their ability to compete
  2. Maps would have to show information from large regions/maybe state-wide in order to be helpful because sometimes resources are just a short drive away from the impact zone.
  3. If there is no power, and no Internet, how will the affected population see this information? Hopefully, this is where the smart-phone mobile app could play a role, but I envision this helping in mostly non-catastrophic events.

A similar concept is being implemented by an organization called  GeoNode with assistance from the World Bank. They are more focused on creating visualizations of data to help populations understand their natural disaster risk. Although the concepts are somewhat different their “roadmap” might have some useful information regarding needed features, for example, the need for a “web-based upload of data”.

Please let me know your thoughts.

Developing a Model for Tapping Technical Volunteers: From Crisis Mappers to DHS’s NET Guard

Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers brought together a network of people who, as described on their website, work at

Leveraging mobile platforms, computational linguistics, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.

Their well publicized crisis mapping effort was done during the response to the earthquake in Haiti, but Patrick Meier of Ushahidi has tried to find a way to formalize the formerly ad hoc nature of the group with a “Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force“. This group would be organized in advance of the next big event to work with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or (OCHA). He envisions the group providing three things:  (1) technical support with regard to software deployment and development; (2) multi-media support including “media monitoring, geo-referencing, mapping, blogging on updates, etc.”;  and (3) a general support element, the Crowd Force Team, which would include individuals without any particularly specialized skills other than a willingness to help.

Others have talked about a Virtual Crisis Crowd Coordination Center (Gisli Olafsson in particular), which could potentially complement the Task Force concept. The VCCC (which has way too many C’s to be an acronym) would be a place for people to register their interest in volunteering their technical skills (remotely) to be matched with the needs of pre-registered organizations.

It seems we are grappling a little for a model to tap the cognitive surplus of more-than capable people that want to volunteer their technical skills during disasters.

But it’s worth noting that the Dept. of Homeland Security is already moving forward with a pilot project called “NET Guard” or National Emergency Technology Guard, which provides a way to deploy technical volunteers during crises. Although this model was not designed for people with the technical expertise available to the Crisis Mappers community, the model is worth considering.

The DHS website describes the project and its rationale as follows:

Information Technology (IT) and communications systems are vulnerable to damage from natural hazards, accidents, and acts of terrorism and play an essential part in the effectiveness of response operations. Most of the National Planning Scenarios contemplate the loss of, or significant damage to, IT and communications systems.

Following authorization in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the NET Guard program concept was developed through a DHS scoping initiative and work group involving stakeholders and potential partners including state and local government representatives, emergency managers, potential private sector partners and DHS Divisions. DHS/FEMA will use the NET Guard Pilot Programs to test and further evaluate and develop the program concept.

The NET Guard Program is envisioned as a means to provide emergency, temporary reconstitution of IT and communications systems, or installation of emergency, temporary IT and communications systems, for governmental entities, private non-profit entities performing governmental functions, and private sector entities providing essential services. The NET Guard Program is also envisioned as a means to surge additional IT and communications resources into impacted areas to assist entities with emergency IT and communications system activities.

The concept of the team includes several similar themes present in the Crisis Mappers Task Force concept in that volunteers

  1. will be verified with having relevant expertise
  2. tested as an asset during exercises
  3. established and maintained by either a government entity or through a private sector sponsor (e.g. the IBM tech volunteer team)

The NET Guard would be part of the Citizen Corps but with local emergency management affiliations (which is key for the development of trust) and are envisioned to be incorporated into their local agency’s emergency operations plans. Included in their functions in the pilot program–but buried way at the bottom– is the function of…”staffing expertise for GIS applications, social networking”. I feel like I found the needle in the haystack!

So, the questions I would ask then are:  (1.) Would the Crisis Mappers Task Force ever be envisioned for use in response efforts inside the United States? (2.) Where do volunteer efforts such as the Crisis Commons fit with these models, particularly in the U.S.? And (3.) If this is intended to be a local asset, what happens when a community is impacted and your asset has evacuated? In other words, it doesn’t take into account people that would like to contribute that live no where near the event.

See Also:

The Promises and Challenges of Crisis Response Tech Volunteers