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=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9734854/emergency-personnel-look/emergency-personnel-look.jpg?size=500&imageId=9734854″ 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=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9759063/further-towns-pakistan/further-towns-pakistan.jpg?size=500&imageId=9759063″ 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.”
- “His maps page provides detailed views of over 9000 villages affected by the downpour, broken down by region.” The map is somewhat government related in the sense that the sponsors listed are both Lahore University and the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission.
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=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9741639/flood-victim-holds-water/flood-victim-holds-water.jpg?size=500&imageId=9741639″ 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.”