Are emergency response organizations dropping the social media “ball”?

Post by: Kim Stephens
Recently, I ran across two seemingly unrelated articles regarding disasters and social media and the thing that struck me was that first response organizations are not delivering information through social media as effectively as volunteers–some of which have virtually zero emergency management or disaster communications experience. This leads to several questions, but I do not have the answers:

  • Will response organizations rely on volunteers to curate information from now on, or will they feel the need to add staff  to complete these tasks?
  • Will the public somehow lose trust in government organizations that don’t provide timely information that seems easily obtained elsewhere?
  • Will government agencies utilize existing social media and crisis mapping tools or feel compelled to pay contractors to create unique applications? [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=natural+gas+pipeline+explosion&iid=9734854″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

The first article by Gary Oldham from the blog Wingineering, titled Twitter to the Rescue–Social Media’s Evolving Role in Disasters, provides a very good description of Twitter’s usefulness in disseminating valuable information during three recent disasters: the New Zealand Earthquake, the Colorado Wildfires, and the natural gas pipeline explosion in California. However, in most instances, response officials were “out-tweeted” by volunteers.  While acknowledging the use of social media by local public safety organizations, he points out:

“…but of course not all agencies use Twitter in this manner yet, and in some instances, may simply be too overwhelmed in the immediacy of dealing with mitigating the disaster to use social media in the evolving stages of the disaster.”

During the Colorado wildfires he mentions a handful of people, in no way related to any response organization, that curated the information from police and fire scanners–sometimes listening for hours on end, and also from other twitter feeds (e.g. offers of aid), and then tweeted or re-tweeted that information to their followers.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9759063″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /] The other example  is from a world away in Pakistan. An article in Wired magazine titled: “Pakistan Aid Groups Route Around U.S. Military for Relief Web” describes how volunteer-created crisis maps are used more by non-governmental organizations than the military’s “connection tool” called HARMONIEweb. The author noted that most NGOs working in Pakistan were not even aware that HARMONIEweb existed much less had participated in any of its forums or “chats.”  Instead NGO’s are relying on social media curated by volunteers like Sohaib Khan, a computer-science professor at the Lahore University of Management Scientists, [who] put together a widget  called Floodmaps that relies on Google Earth and Google Maps to track the path of the flood and monitor devastation like washed-out bridges that need to be rebuilt.”

Another group called Pakreport is involved in crisis mapping and information curation and is “staffed” with “an impromptu collection of Pakistani technologist and their mostly-American academic friends.”

  • Pakreport uses the Ushahidi mapping platform to display data gathered from  SMS text messages sent to the number 3441. “[f]lood-stricken Pakistanis can find their emergency information tracked by type and location, giving official and independent aid agencies a view into the evolving landscape of people’s needs.”

Crisiscommons is also active in this disaster, as they were in the response to the Haitian earthquake. Led by co-founder Heather Blanchard, a former DHS employee, a wiki page has been employed as a “connection tool” for survivors, volunteers located in-country and volunteers located thousands of miles away. Their resources page has an exhaustive list of resources, including Pakreport and Floodmaps, that address these questions: [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9741639″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”153″ /]

  • Where can I find out who needs my help?
  • Where can I find people to help me deliver aid?
  • Where can I find out information?
  • How do I find out if I’m about to be flooded?
  • Who should I alert/give my information to?
  • Where can I find general information out about #pkfloods?
  • Where can I search for people? (I cannot find my grandmother/relative)
  • I have been ‘found’ – who should I alert/give my status to?
  • I need food/water/supplies, how can I tell people I need something?
  • I have food/water/supplies, how can I find out where there’s a need?
  • I want to get to location x, where can I find out about the state of the roads?
  • I am observing/know the state of the roads, who should I alert/give my information to?
  • How can I find out where there are information blackspots/there is no telecomms coverage?
  • I know where the telecoms/information blackspots are, who should I give my alert/information to and how?

Tellingly, the list of resources does not include the HARMONIEweb site.
So, what’s the point?  It seems to me that the military is recreating the wheel for use in international humanitarian missions, while in the U.S., some local governments don’t seem to know the wheel exists.

The Wired article sums up this potential problem:

“U.S. forces in Pakistan have a few Web 2.0 tools of their own. But there’s a serious digital divide between the military and civilian tools. The armed forces’ efforts are pretty rudimentary, in comparison. They haven’t yet plugged in these independent Wiki creators and collaborative mapmakers — and may never.”

9 responses to “Are emergency response organizations dropping the social media “ball”?

  1. … I was reflecting on what bothers me so much about the social media finger-wagging at emergency managers that’s become so widespread lately. And I’ve concluded it’s because many self-styled social media advocates seem not to appreciate how profound the change they trumpet actually is.

    Social media aren’t just a new version of mass media. They aren’t just a plug-in update for technologies and techniques that the old fogies have collected over the years. In fact, to a large extent, they aren’t about us emergency managers at all.

    What we’re talking about here are deep reframings of traditional ideas about emergency management, public safety, government and community. Information and attention are flowing in different channels; influence and meaning are being constructed in new venues. It’s not just a matter of getting emergency managers and public safety folks to type with their thumbs.

    So are emergency managers dropping the ball? I’d suggest that it’s not clear yet what sort of ball it is, or to what extent it’s even in their court. We need a deeper understanding of how social media interact with existing EM processes and responsibilities. And we need strategic thinking about how existing SOPs and job descriptions are going to need to evolve. With no clear picture of the new rules it’s little surprise that emergency managers aren’t all begging to be passed that ball right away.

    Meanwhile it seems the real headline here is that people are finding new ways to solve problems for themselves without relying so heavily on designated responders. In other words, the paradigm of emergency response is shifting under our feet.

    • Picking up on Art’s last point, it occurred to me that the “do it yourself” or “take charge” attitude might in part be a result of the efforts of federal officials (such as Craig Fugate at FEMA) to push the concept of resilience and urge citizens to take on more responsibility for themselves during a crisis or disaster. Or it could be dissatisfaction with existing actions and services. Perhaps we are seeing some unintended consequences of the push for resilience.

      Claire B. Rubin

  2. A thought provoking article, Kim.

    My own article had no intent to critique public sector agencies for their social media practices or lack thereof, but rather to simply examine how interested citizens stepped up to get information they felt important out to the world. This will happen regardless of public sector social media involvement.

    You may want to read an earlier post of mine, “Social Media Use by Public Safety Agencies” at where I highlight use of Twitter by several public safety agencies, most notably the Los Angeles Fire Department (@LAFD and @LAFDtalk) and the Toronto Police Services (@TorontoPolice), both of which use Twitter extensively during emergencies.

  3. Not sure anyone in particular gets to take credit; this trend toward decentralization and devolution of power/responsibility strikes me as a broad Third Wave phenomenon driven by technology and (to invoke an even more venerable Tofflerism) the accelerating rate of change.

    The problem is that these changes are inherently somewhat subversive to traditional styles of centralized sovereignty and authority. Thus, while more progressive practitioners are embracing them, there’s also some instinctive reaction among officials and organizations who see them as threats to their own hard-won status.

    I don’t believe we can stop the trend, but maybe we can reduce the friction by developing some understanding and a narrative about how emergency managers can surf the wave and not be washed away by it. That’s why I worry about the somewhat accusatory tone of some of the current advocacy, which I fear risks sounding more threatening than inviting.

    • The accusatory tone isn’t necessary coming from lowly bloggers like myself. If you read between the lines in news articles about the success of twitter and social media in general during recent disasters, there is always a question in the air: “Why aren’t the government officials handling this?” From the Denver Post article about social media one woman said: “We’re frustrated that there’s so little information [from official sources] about the specific areas and about what’s happening,” Hamilton, a planetary geologist, said from a hotel room in Boulder.”
      From the NPR affiliate interview with the volunteers in Boulder that became the main sources of info on twitter: “Wow!” says the interviewer, “Local officials could learn a lot from you.”
      Although some local agencies, as well as states and even FEMA, are starting to understand the role social media will eventually play in crisis communications, there are a few folks that have decided their agencies will not engage in social media, period.
      As far as the wonderful example of the LAFD’s use of social media, even that sends up red flags since the PIOs are often overwhelmed with the volume of information they have to deal with on days when there’s not even a major crisis.
      I’m not trying to throw stones here, but I do think we as a community need to take a hard look at public expectations, and how we plan to deal with this new reality.
      I understand why these agencies might not want “the ball” right now, but I also think they need to be studying how to play.

  4. You’re right… expectations are precisely the issue. My concern is that expectations are being driven by enthusiasm in the absence of any coherent theory about how all this is supposed to work out. That in turn is triggering an unnecessarily rigid reaction by some officials. And that, in turn again, is fueling criticism of officials for appearing to be unresponsive when, in many cases, they’re just trying to be responsible. It’s a vicious circle that I think could be broken with positive effects.

    Might we progress better if we could resist the conventional “government is out of touch” storyline? Seems there’s plenty of evidence that, a) officials are studying and, in many cases, leveraging social media, and, b) meanwhile populations are using social media to lighten the burden on official agencies.

    Public frustration with official information flows is nothing new, and there’s no evidence that the problem is, or has ever been, a lack of dissemination capacity. The reason official information is slow almost always has to do with process issues in the creation and release of such information; unofficial information can always be faster precisely because it doesn’t have to be sent through the hoops required to make it “official.” It may be that SM technologies can be applied to mitigate such process delays, but isn’t the real story here a reevaluation of the costs and benefits of “official” information in the first place?

  5. Commenting as having posted recently (thank you) and involved with this topic in a variety of ways including in the recent past being affiliated with a county EOC as a C.E.R.T. Marketing Coordinator and Volunteer.
    When I see Emergency Management say “let’s start now and find a way to bring us up to speed”, is when I’ll stop saying anything seemingly negative. In my area, proprietary rights on individual web sites, control issues, and egos, all take center stage. It’s “no were not doing because of all the aforementioned reasons”, not “this is a concern what do you suggest or what do we need to do make it happen”. So to me that’s a choice and quite possibly a detrimental one for the entity.
    For the sake of this “discussion” will not address the approx 45-60%, depending on the location, who are not online.
    Even as we type not only is it happening but the well defined Ball is rolling down hill and picking up speed not to mention the next event is probably being #hash-tagged as we speak. Today;
    At CESA2010: The Next Generation – Keynote by Amanda Ripley and special focus on using Social Media: Resistance is futile.
    Citizen Corps #youthprep “Emergency Managers not using people within the orgs who have the skills to communicate” Chandrika Kumaran, Mgr for Public Ed
    Yesterday a shift in thought as Twitter becomes known for it’s news – Twitter is NOT a Social Network, Says Twitter Exec
    There are no doubt valid concerns that have been mentioned that need to be addressed but take action, not sit back and wait.
    Make it an extension of your communication/outreach as most have PR, a PIO, Marketing Dept or something with a similar function. If you don’t trust your Public Affairs or Relations person why are they there? Enlist a trusted Volunteer in a secured position with a love of the venue.
    Put the P back in Public Safety, isn’t every one here for the public good to serve their community? There is a definite shift as the news service is finding out, whether or not they like i,t because it continues to evolve and happen.
    As long as that resistance for whatever reason continues to occur, comes with it the effects of the indecision being loss of public trust, constructed alienation, damage to public/private partnerships and the list goes on.
    Official or not Official as with every recent event, people will be Tweeting, taking pictures and saying whatever they want. So who best to address and comment on the flow of information then someone from the agency.
    So I would say the proverbial Ball is crystal clear and an attitude of “this is what I want to accomplish how do we go about it” is the only resolution. Open a Twitter or Facebook account (TOS in place), use Tweetdeck or Seesmic so it makes sense and to manage it, Google for one of dozens of Social Media Policies or Directives , and start with something basic.
    Your only option is, when it will matter most . . . no one will be listening.

  6. Indeed, “The Unthinkable” author Amanda Ripley touched on this during her Q&A with California emergency managers after her keynote speech at a conference in Monterey this afternoon.

    When pressed by a social media promoter she said, politely but I thought rather pointedly, that what she’d seen so far from social media in emergency management was “99 percent promotion and only one percent substance.” She went on to say that she didn’t think anyone actually knew yet what the role of social media could or should be in disaster response.

    Unfortunately some of the current crop of SM evangelists seem more concerned with pressuring officials to endorse their enthusiasm than with actually figuring out how these new tools can improve things for the public. (Hint: in many cases the best applications won’t involve officials at all.)

    The real heros of the SM revolution, in my view, are the selfless folks who’re building and using tools like Ushahidi without worrying about official endorsement or adoption.

  7. The heroes are indeed anyone who selflessly spends countless hours garnering information and creating a usable format not only for others to use but also anyone who can send even one Tweet as that in itself can prove to be lifesaving. The Volunteers or Citizen Reporters also deserve credit for the same reason most also providing an invaluable service.
    Respectfully disagree with the “assumption” and “labeling” people as a “current crop of SM evangelists seem more concerned with pressuring officials to endorse their enthusiasm than with actually figuring out how these new tools can improve things for the public” unless of course inquired of each individual and are basing the statement on fact not mere conjecture.
    The name calling has to stop and the listening has to begin as many I know are quite knowledgeable in their own right from life and work experience, often times more so than those in position, just not “titled” as this seems to have been the standard thus far in order to be credible. Always are a few who are self motivated and as I say look for self edification.
    But the natives are getting restless and tired of the rhetoric as their fellow man lie in distress and often times in peril with no one in sight and no one coming.
    Myself am out in the field so to speak trying to effect change at the ground level as an individual in the rural areas and as a Volunteer who has been fortunate and blessed to have some who wholeheartedly embrace innovation and have given me the latitude to do so.
    Something recent and hopefully if we can work out the tech aspects with the venue location, something more from around the US with the #140 Roadtrip in the planning stages.
    Wholeheartedly suggest the Emergency Management Community see this as something to embrace and relationships they can be built now as many do who are effectively using it. Have worked on building maps with Crisis Camp in a minimal way but enough to know to the contrary, everyone needs to start working together before anything happens. As with the Faith Based Initiative in Missouri which I was fortunate to be involved with it’s introduction into the communities within the State, putting things in place before is key.
    Did you know Boulder has 8 Twitter accounts? Imagine how those could have been used if the right account was partnered with the right Volunteer or Org. Could have separated out the types of Tweets and Depts to “organize” what was happening, maybe something a Cyber C.E.R.T. Community Emergency Response Team Volunteer could undertake. Credentialed, associated, and equipped with a knowledge base for events.
    The tech circles, Social Media Clubs, and Crisis Camps are in most of your communities. Many that are not are looking for ways to organize so would say develop those partnerships now.
    Many are willing but few in key positions care to listen or perhaps don’t take the time to ask, starting with those that use it. Still uncharted territory to a degree but many are making it work and indeed leading by example. Follow them, avail oneself of the wealth of information out there, and believe the template is there for Social Media to be used in Disaster Response it just needs to be acknowledged and embraced.
    In order for something to grow you have to be willing to let go and allow for the ever changing ever evolving nature of the venue as with any event.
    Flexibility is key as there can be guidelines but knowing in this ever changing media world there will be no hard and fast rules, will be the only way to chart this New Frontier.

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