Do emergency responders understand the power of social media?

I asked a friend of mine, an emergency manager of a county in Tennessee, why he didn’t “believe” in social media.  He clarified that he was a non-user, not a non-believer, and  equated typing on facebook to smoking: legal, but undesirable. His major points of contention:

  • First, social media has run amok and people are using and abusing it at work: one can imagine people getting drunk on twitter in their cubicles.
  • Secondly, during a disaster, people might use social media to send in non-substantial requests for assistance and would therefore “add confusion” to the situation.
  • Third, answering tweets or texts during an event would be “more distracting and time consuming“.
  • Fourth, social media has its place during disasters, but needs to be “controlled at some point like we now do with Alcohol and Tobacco–heed the warning.”

Here’s my reply.

Abuse at work: I think each time there is an advance in technology organizations need time to adjust their policies and procedures. When computers were placed on every person’s desk some employers might have argued to take them off because people played games on them: “Look at all the time wasted with employees playing solitaire!”  But gains in employee productivity far outweighed the negative consequences, so the technology was eventually embraced.

Time: I agree, going through numerous tweets and texts is time consuming. PIOs  in response organizations can use software such as Frontline SMS, available for free for to anyone who cares to download it, in order to turn any ordinary desk-top computer into a device that’s able to send and receive text messages to thousands of citizens. It has been used all over the world by NGO’s involved in humanitarian missions.[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=disaster&iid=9580418″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9580418/pak-pakistan-flood/pak-pakistan-flood.jpg?size=500&imageId=9580418″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]Watch this short video to gain an understanding of the software. We should really study how these NGOs are using it effectively in order to understand the full power of this technology for domestic use. Twitter, of course, is another way to communicate with large groups of people (although most people with cell phones are more comfortable with sending text messages than sending tweets). None of these technologies, unfortunately, help with the amount of time it takes to sort through the information. See the paper: “Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service”: Emergency Management & Social Media Evangelism, by Mark Latonero, PhD, and Irina Shklovski, PhD for a fuller treatment of this point.

Text messages are a distraction: Rather than a distraction, SMS text and twitter are powerful ways to gather situational awareness data from the public; after all, social media is ultimately about two-way communications.  Although GIS mapping can provide information regarding what areas are supposed to be damaged, a report from a citizen describing in detail  the extent of the damage should be embraced rather than shunned as “non-verifiable”.  The U.S.G.S. has embraced the power of information collected directly from the public with the website “Did You Feel It?“:

This web site is intended to tap the abundant information available about earthquakes from the people who actually experience them. By taking advantage of the vast numbers of Internet users, we can get a more complete description of what people experienced, the effects of the earthquake, and the extent of damage, than traditional ways of gathering felt information.

Social Media has also been used in example after example during crises as a way for people to help each other. Patrick Meier, at iRevolution, points out that people are able to help each other with things that emergency responders either can’t, won’t or shouldn’t provide. For example, during the Icelandic volcanic eruptions, stranded passengers used their Facebook network to find places to stay. During the recent snow storms in DC, deemed “snowmeggdon”, people were able to post on the Ushahidi mapping platform that they needed assistance with things like digging out their car, and people willing to help responded.

Are there details to work out?  Absolutely, and judging from my friend’s responses, it will probably take years before the full power of social media can be realized in the emergency response community.

One response to “Do emergency responders understand the power of social media?

  1. Or maybe it’s just not about us. Is it possible that social media might be important for society at large but not so much for the “emergency response community” per-se?

    Talking about “emergency responders” as a class implies a relatively small “us” distinguished from the larger “them” of emergency victims/survivors/participants. Social media, on the other hand, tend toward a peer-to-peer model based more on cooperation and less on authority.

    Not that one model is right and the other wrong, but is it possible that there just isn’t automatically that good a fit between them? Or to put it another way, is what’s best for the community as a whole necessarily what’s best for the self-designated “emergency response community”?

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