Tag Archives: Alabama

Tornado Stricken School District Uses Social Media to Aid Recovery

Post by: Kim Stephens

The massive tornadoes that struck Alabama and Missouri in late spring and early summer didn’t spare public school buildings. In Joplin, the school system suffered major damage. They also lost some of their students and staff: seven students and one staff member were killed. (These deaths occurred off-campus. The tornados struck in the evening.)  I often discuss how social media is used during a crisis, but what is not often highlighted by me or others is the great contribution social media make in the recovery phase–after the national media have left and the spotlight is taken off of the crisis. Joplin Independent School District provides a great example of how organizations can use the medium as a platform to pinpoint specific needs, reach out to those who still have an interest in helping, and demonstrate their progress and resilience, e.g. “We will open our school August 17, 2011.”

In order to tell the story of their recovery, I will highlight some of their experiences during the height of the crisis. I was able to reach the Communications Specialist of the Joplin’s school district, Casey Owens, who provided great insight to their social media presence, goals and policies both pre and post disaster. Of note, they were using social media for communications before the tornado. In particular, it was used at the district level with only a few people allowed to post content. The content was generally geared toward  highlighting overarching district success stories, or what she called “notables,” and announcing cancellations and other community-at-large information. Since the High School has so much information on its own, they are currently in the process of developing a page just for them. This is a pre-crisis post.

But after the tornado, their facebook page has become one of their primary means of communicating with the public, much more so than pre-event. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the tornado it was their ONLY means of communication.

Ms. Owens indicated that their website and email services were hosted on a local server which had either spotty or no service at all for at least a week. Sheer volume made cell phone service unreliable.  Therefore,  the communications department accessed facebook (and twitter) from home computers outside of the impacted area, and this was the only reliable source of communication. As an aside, Ms. Owens noted that the primary audience of their twitter account was most likely the media versus the local population.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that social media are the new flagpoles, the place were people rally in order to be accounted for after a crisis. This was also true for Joplin, ISD. In the immediate aftermath, they asked both staff and students to post information about their well-being directly to the facebook site. One of the first posts requesting this information received over 300 comments.

By May 27, 6 days after the storm, they had accounted for 97% of their staff and students.

Almost immediately, posts started to address how people could help with recovery. They also asked people to tell them what their needs were.

Interestingly, most people that commented to this post were still indicating that they were OK. Of the 97 comments only one requested assistance.

The district however, understood that there would be needs that had to be met, and with offers of donations pouring in, it was necessary for them to figure out how to organize the recovery effort into a systematic process. At this point, Joplin ISD turned to a program that was also in place (although somewhat recently) pre-tornado, called Bright Futures. The Bright Futures program is an innovative solution to try to increase their district’s high school graduation rate. They determined a child’s academic career cannot be viewed through tunnel but rather a prism. In other words, when is a child ready to learn? They aren’t ready to learn if they show up to school in flipflops in freezing weather, or if they are going hungry on the weekend, or if they don’t have any books in their home, or if they are homeless…the list is endless. The program utilizes social media to broadcast needs (without compromising the identity or privacy of the student) in order to find community resources that can meet those needs. Their facebook page lists their pre-crisis mission: “This program will serve as a vehicle to deepen community involvement in the Joplin School District’s efforts to tackle poverty issues and improve student academic performance. This will be accomplished through various partnerships.”

I asked Ms. Owens what impact social media had on the program. She indicated that the impact was profound. Their initial goal was to try to meet a student’s needs within 24 hours. With social media, the needs are met within MINUTES–literally.  In fact, they ended up with a different problem, many community members were disappointed that they were not able to contribute because the needs were met so quickly. Therefore, program administrators developed a list they keep off-line of people who want to help and what resources they have available. One interesting example of the program in action, a disadvantaged family’s water heater stopped working, the Bright Future’s staff  found a company willing to donate the parts to fix it and another person who could do the labor to make the repairs.

After the tornado struck, the Bright Future’s program is now doing the same mission but on a much larger scale: matching resources (which have come from all over the country) to needs. They allow people to post to the wall on the Bright Futures facebook page and after the tornado these mostly involve people describing what they are willing to donate. The program uses the site to post unmet needs as they become known. Needs can include everything from eye glasses to bikes and even, on rare occasion, housing needs for homeless children. Again, each of these needs are met within minutes.

On a broader scale, they have created an adopt-a-classroom program whereby people or organizations can contribute items for a specific classroom. They also have an “adopt-an-eagle” program, in order to ensure that all students school supply needs are met. Watch this great video on the overall program–which also highlights their use of another social media platform, YouTube. As a take-away lesson I think the most important thing another school district could learn from this example is the importance of having social media in place before a crisis. During a disaster or crisis event is no time to learn.

I’d like to thank to Ms. Owens for the wealth of information she provided. I hope you all continue towards a speedy recovery.

Social Media Foster Citizen-to-Citizen Aid After Disasters

One of several tornadoes observed by the VORTE...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The recent tornadoes in the southern United States have demonstrated the strength of social media as tools for both communications and collaboration. Social media are usually discussed in the context of the immediate aftermath of a storm, e.g. in getting out the word regarding both the threat and then the immediate impact of an event. However, we are just beginning to understand the power of social networking tools during the recovery phase and their role in fostering citizen-to-citizen aid.

The recent article: Alabama Tornadoes: Twitter, facebook, other social media make a mark in disaster response, relief, is interesting in its lack of discussion of  government agencies.  Most of the “disaster response, and relief” mentioned in the article is from citizen to citizen or at least NGO to citizen. As an example, most of the Facebook pages or groups that they highlight were started by people who “just wanted to help”. These people probably do not have experience in disaster response, or training in crisis communications and might not have ever heard the acronym “NIMS”. Nonetheless, the pages they created served, or are serving, as “rallying points” for people in and out of the community. Some of these pages, such as from the one quoted below,  helped people find out about their loved ones:

“Someone would ask about a person they couldn’t get on the phone and another person would reply [on the facebook page] “Oh, I saw them out cleaning up debris,” Davis-Evans said.

Other posts allowed people who wanted to provide assistance to give it directly to those impacted or to hyper-local organizations, such as Churches:

A truck loaded with supplies from New York arrived at the church last week, courtesy of a former Alabama resident who saw the plea on Facebook. That donation came on the heels of boxes of supplies shipped from Austin, Texas; volunteers who showed up from Freeman, Ga.; and a check mailed from Orange County, Calif.

These findings in Alabama are not unique. After every crisis people and organizations are able to utilize social media to ask for help and, on the opposite side of the coin, to find opportunities to assist those in need. Of course this skirts traditional American Red Cross or NVOAD registration systems for tracking and educating volunteers. Those systems have been developed for a reason–people who self-deploy to an impacted area can often become part of the problem vs. the solution, and unwanted donations (particularly clothing) can overwhelm local response and volunteer organizations. But I do find the way people solicit very specific requests for help extremely interesting. There are several categories of solicitations.

1. Physical Labor: In the tweet above from May 26, the organization “Reach-a-Child” asks for people to help pack books for children. Other tweets ask people to donate physical labor to help distribute food and water, or to help remove debris.

2. Specific Items:
Some organizations ask for specific items to be donated–everything  from diapers to wheelchairs. This tweet shows a person asking for a BBQ smoker to be donated to what looks like might be a Church, based on the handle of the tweeter: “Preacherman”.

3. Monetary Donations: And of course, there are many request for monetary donations as well, which usually includes the ability to text to a specified number and donate a small sum.

Social Media are also used to rally the “troops”–as it were. Some communications simply relay the person’s intent to help in an effort to get others to come along:  “Going to work in #Joplin at the tyson food spot. Lowe’s parking lot…feeding people…please pass word around.” And interestingly, there are often unsolicited offers to survivors via social media. One Joplin hair salon, for example, tweeted their offer of free shampoos, styles “food, toys, etc. for victims.”

Possible Problems

All of this opportunity for people to help can create some problems. I have one example from  Australia to illustrate the issue. A humane society needed to evacuate animals from their soon-to-be flooded facility. They put out the word that they needed assistance via social media and folks showed up to help….for days, and days and days, well after the need was satisfied. In another example, here in the U.S. one solicitation for a wheelchair for a young man after the Alabama tornadoes was filled very quickly; however, the need kept being retweeted. This required the requesting organization to address people directly and ask them not to retweet.  Understanding how to stop a request is almost as important as understanding how to ask for assistance in the first place.

Aggregating Sites:

In Joplin, the website Rebuild Joplin, which, according to the site, is “Bright Futures initiative”  was up 36 hours after the tornado. They have the explicit mission of matching those that were impacted with those that want to help.  For those impacted the menu includes a list of resources:

  1. Food & Supplies (from adult clothing to toys)
  2. Housing & Shelter
  3. Services (with a handy list of categories from Auto to Tree Removal. Each tab has a list of  organizations or private companies offering the service and their contact information.)
  4. Missing Persons: (This tab just has three organizations that are involved with missing persons: MO Dept of Public Safety, ARC, and Americorp.)

The list of opportunities to help is essentially a mirror of “I have needs” page, and the site provides a categorized list of organizations and their contact information.  I think I have to agree with them that this page should “serve as a model for other communities affected by disasters.”

Organizations, however, even if they are listed on the website, will probably still feel compelled to send out tweets or post to their facebook pages about upcoming opportunities for volunteers.  Reaching people through social media platforms is one way to keep up attention after the national media have left. People who are following the event’s hashtags  or are part of an event-oriented facebook group (especially 1-2 weeks after a disaster) are also probably motivated to help.

Our thoughts go out to those who were recently impacted by these events.  I know this will be a long recovery, but it is great to see all of the ways communities are learning to use new resources, including social networking tools, to bring folks together to help each other and themselves.

The Story of the Southern Storms: told through Twitter

Post by: Kim Stephens

I often find myself explaining twitter to people who have never used the micro-blogging platform before, or at least haven’t used it very much. I find it a little like to trying to explain what an elephant looks like to someone who’s only seen the nose. But what occurred to me while reading the twitter feed after the devastating Southern storms, is that reading them was like reading a book written by 100s of people: each phase of the disaster is a different “chapter” and each tweet is one sentence in a paragraph. Sometimes the sentences are out of order and sometimes they don’t make sense until you read the entire page but, nonetheless, each one sheds a little more light on the plot.

How do you choose which book to read? The hashtags associated with each tweet organize the information into “books” if you will suffer with my analogy here. #ALwx stands for Alabama weather and by following that tag, you don’t even need to know or follow any of the individuals tweeting the information. For more insights into the definition of hashtags see the Twitter Fan Wiki definition.

I would like to use this horrible crisis to continue the analogy, but in no way do I mean to trivialize it. Rather, I hope to shed some light on what types of information is conveyed through the platform.

Chapter 1: Take Cover  If an event has a warning, as this one did,  you will find in the twitter feed many personal safety messages as well as information about the storms’ track. Most of these originate from government agencies, for example FEMA, NWS, local news stations and local public safety agencies. This tweet, for example started with FEMA.

But citizens also add their own observations.

Chapter 2: You Should be in a Shelter NOW! During a major storm event, the most common tweets are those describing the storms’ location. Notice how information about damage is reported simultaneously and almost instantly.

Chapter 3: Destruction

Pictures such as this one of Gardendale, AL start to show up in the twitter feed instantly, as soon as the storm passes. This pic was posted by a local news organization to their feed, but they received it from a citizen via twitter and yfrog.

Chapter 4: One Voice Emerges

During this recent crisis, James Spann, a meteorologist from ABC 33/40 TV, became the main storyteller. With over 25,000 followers of his own, and many people re-tweeting him, the website Tweetreach estimated that he reached 30,981 people with each tweet. The information he disseminated was original content based on NWS weather data, information people sent him via @ messages (such as donation information), and retweets of other info he found pertinent. This actually makes him more of a content curator, similar to the role Andy Carvin of NPR played (and continues to play) during the Mid-east peace uprisings.

Chapter  5:  We will Recover.

Recovery often begins with gratitude and with people figuring out ways to help each other. The twitter feed for this “chapter”  is no different. It is also a great place to find stories of hope, such as the tweet about a 8 year-old boy found alive after being sucked into a tornado. I also loved the story of the man finding his dog alive even though everything else was a total loss.

Many tweets point people to where they can donate to the relief effort either monetarily or physically, e.g. with manual labor to help clean up. 

I understand that twitter takes some getting used to in order to be able to “read the book”. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really a hard one to put down. If you’d like to donate to help out all those affected here’s the link  to the American Red Cross mid-Alabama chapter.

Related Articles

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.