Social Media is DATA.

By: Kim Stephens

Craig Fugate spoke at the Red Cross Social Media Summit and implored the audience not to think of social media in terms of each of the component parts (e.g. Facebook, twitter, etc) but as sources of data. You can follow him on Twitter via @ CraigatFEMA.

How we deal with situational awareness information/data coming from non-traditional-communication channels is one of the biggest challenges facing the emergency response community.  Unfortunately, we are playing catch-up to public expectations.

In his talk, Fugate noted the public’s use of social media in crises is growing. One of the many challenges this presents is the ability of first responders and governments to monitor such information and act on it in a timely manner. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=fugate&iid=8762078″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”310″ /]

This point was made in the Red Cross-survey,  74% of respondents age 18-34 agreed with the statement: “Emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their websites and social media sites so they can respond promptly to any requests for help posted there.” Clearly, many younger citizens have high expectations in terms of responses and replies to their requests.

How we organize ourselves to sort, aggregate, verify and then visualize (e.g. maps or timelines) all of this information is truly yet to be determined: it’s difficult enough during run-of-the-mill events, much less during a large-scale disaster.  The participants at the summit discussed  these questions, you can view their collective responses on the summit’s blog.  Another important paper, written by John Solomon and Dr. Roni Zeiger in anticipation of the summit, also addresses these concerns: “The Case for Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media“. Yet, even these papers leave the reader with more questions than answers.

But just having emergency managers agree that social media is data and not a disease would be a good start.


3 responses to “Social Media is DATA.

  1. With all respect for Craig, I’m afraid he may inadvertently have fallen into the common bureaucratic error of viewing communication as merely, or even primarily, a matter of data transfer. A moment’s reflection will remind us that there’s more to it than that.

    Human communication also involves negotiating attention and emotional engagement. (The acronym AIR – Attention, Information and Reassurance – can help us remember that emergency information involves all three aspects.) Social media are more about attention and emotion more than information. Twitter is a useful place to monitor waves of attention. Facebook is about relationships.

    To frame social media as merely “data” is, I’m afraid, to miss what makes them social.

    • Social media has been successfully used to identify places that need attention. Kim has pointed out an example (through persoal communications) of the fires in California, and of the use of social media saving people in Haiti. Why just watch the local news, they cannot be everywhere.

  2. A concrete example of the above occurs to me: The earliest and most obviously successful use of social media by the American Red Cross was for fundraising. A donation isn’t just a datum, it’s a concrete act based a relationship… in this case, the relationship between the donor and the Red Cross, and also, indirectly, between the donor and the disaster victims.

    Certainly we can gather statistics about such donations, but are those anywhere near as useful as the donations themselves? Situational awareness is only important to the extent it informs action. Social media aren’t just a data source to be mined, they are themselves platforms for action.

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