SMEM chat focuses on New Zealand

Post by: Kim Stephens

This post is a summary of the discussion which took place on Feb. 25 using the hashtag #SMEMchat.  If you are unfamiliar with the tag, it is used by people interested in how social media and emergency management converge. People discuss issues, problems, and highlight best practices everyday using the #SMEM tag, but each Friday at 1230EST a more formal discussion occurs around a specific pre-determined topic. Visit for a complete archive of past chats and to vote on the topic for the current week (this is a very democratic group). I have summarized several chats here, a well.

This week’s discussion continued well after the 1 hour allotted time, and there was a great amount of interest. The discussion was led by David Wild. Many people made many great points, but I only quoted a few of you, in the interest of space I tried to summarize. I apologize if I didn’t quote every salient point or name each person. The content below is a summary from the group, not thoughts from me, although I did participate.

Q.1 Debrief from ChristChurch Earthquake: What did we learn?

If we learned one thing from this crisis it’s that social media continues to play a role in each disaster in way that seems to increase exponentially vs. linear. Some of the other key findings:

  • People used SM to connect with loved ones.
  • People used SM and text messaging to seek help while trapped. This impacted “resource triage”
    • Telecom companies needed to ensure comms were available in light of this use.
  • Crisis Mapping: People turned to volunteer crisis maps and other SM sites by the hundreds (see picture right of the map produced by CrisisCampNZ with information aggregated from the public, news media, and official response organizations via social media, emails, text and/or the website. This pic is of water availability.)
    • This crisiscamp activity seemed more visible with this disaster and gained international media attention.
    • “We are really at a new age: mobile tech + SM + volunteers. What’s emerging is the need to aggregate and curate info coming from SM and crisis mapping at the onset of incidents” stated Patrice Cloutier. He went on to talk about the need for EM organizations to understand these volunteer organizations before a crisis in order to build trust.
  • Hashtags for the event seemed to change with different times of the day (Cheryl Bledsoe suggested we should do a mashup to see trends). But the #EQNZ tag had been used for the 2010 quake, so it was naturally adopted for this quake as well.
    • #eqnzcontact and #safeinchch (safe in ChristChurch) emerged as a tags for missing persons.
    • Response organizations usually aren’t the first to adopt the tags, and therefore, they need to understand what is being used in order to follow and be part of  the “conversation” (trends and location searches help with finding them).  Trying to impose a tag usually doesn’t work, unless you are first, which might be impossible with a quick onset event, and is only slightly more likely with slow-onset event, such as a hurricane.
    • But…Patrice points out, maybe we just need smarter tools so that hashtags won’t matter ( I’m assuming he’s referring to things like natural language processing, and computer filtering/searching for data, etc.).
  • Observations:
    • According to Rachel Goodchild (a New Zealand native that participated in the chat) local and non-local “influencers” in the SM realm were important for getting out information. (These influencers often have large followings and response organizations should tap into that resource.) Response organizations should immediately follow these influencers so that they can communicate with them via “direct message”. They could also enlist these folks to help knock down misinformation.
    • There were several sites that aggregated online information (with hyperlinks) for survivors.  I think this occurred because response organizations did not provide this “service” on their social media sites. @SoutholdVoice backs up this notion by pointing out, the Student Volunteer Army’s facebook page became the number one source for info. mostly due to lack of an “official” SM presence.
    • The key here is PREPARATION. Let people know when, where, and how they can get information from your organization during a crisis. In other words, include SM platforms in your comms plans if you intend on using them.

Q2: How did power outage/cell towers down effect SM? and “What is the (potential) impact infrastructure failure on SM? How can we mitigate it?

  • Impact of infrastructure failure on SM use?
    • There was a debate during the chat about people gravitating to SM instead of using traditional 911. But as @thefiretracker2 pointed out the NZ version of 911 (111) went down, as did AM radio. So in a sense SM was one of the few ways left to communicate. He states: “People are going to migrate to where this information is, official or not.”
    • Others pointed out that SM use increased due to the failure of other communications systems.
    • Response organizations implored people to use texting in order to take the strain off landlines.
    • Generators were used to keep cell towers up, particularly for trapped people using cell phones, but fuel issues were a problem “from the get-go”.
  • Mitigation:
    • Cell infrastructure is really an important issue and should be a top priority. Plans could/should include back-up measures such as “COWs”(Cell on wheels) to restore service rapidly (deployed by the carrier to temporarily repair damage and/or increase capacity to an area). Others mentioned the need for local EMs to plan for generators for cell towers.
    • Apparently some “hardening” of cell towers has occurred (in the US), with battery backup for 4-8 hours–but it does “depend on the company, technology, GSM/CDMA, backhaul etc.”.
    • According to James Hamilton, NCS is engaged with carriers at the national level, and MERS can also help support critical sites. But TechOps countered that all of the disasters he has been to required COWs (cell on wheels).David Wild indicated that in his research he found it is difficult to assess robustness because private companies wouldn’t release the data.
    • Can SM messages and amateur Radio NTS (National Traffic Service–amateur radio) message interoperate? NTS requires no infrastructure: peer-to-peer? (Could have hashtag to propagate NTS messages on SM)?
      • TechOps stated that with amateur radio “my voice mail does voice to text. Can we do the same for amateur radio and also slow scan TV over ustream?”
      • Ms. Raczynski stated that there needs to be more SM training for HAM radio operators, but FireTracker2 apparently tried this already and was met with resistance “cell service won’t stay up so why bother.” James Hamilton thought this training would “pollute the buckets”– in other words, let them do what they are good at and train others interested in SM like a “net-guard” volunteer team. But FireTracker disagreed–cross training is done, so why not?
    • You can tweet from a satellite phone by using SPOT, according to TheFireTracker2.
    • Cheryl pointed out “social media is only one of may comms tools that EM programs should be using… ‘one arrow of many'”.

Q3: What should be the ground rules for #SMEM exercise? Is a real exercise possible? What do we hope to learn?

This question is grounded in an ongoing debate between emergency management professionals about using social media platforms “live” for an exercise. The essence of the concern is that inevitably the “exercise” portion of the message will get lost along the way, causing confusion and maybe even fear among the general public.

  • Quite a few people argued that you don’t need to create phony tweets in order to test your social media communication systems. Cheryl Bledsoe wrote a recent blog post suggesting the use of smaller events as a SM exercise. I like that idea, as an example, on a college campus, EM’s could test how many students they are reaching (directly or indirectly) by offering free ice-cream or food (beer would work better, but hey) to all of those that show up after the message has gone out.
  • Other suggestions: use private accounts to push & receive injects; analyze past events; use an existing event/crisis for an exercise–even if your organization is not directly involved.
  • Cheryl suggested maybe getting a standard tag going “#drill”, but others saw even that as dangerous and David Wild thought it would get confusing re: stranded miners (funny David).
  • Dit_Dah suggested incorporating SM into you own, local exercises, rather than creating an exercise just to test SM; but others still disagreed if that test was “live”.
  • The long-time social media director of the American Red Cross, Wendy Harman sent out a cautionary tale “I’ve tried a handful of SM drills. They’re not easy to execute. Really. not. easy.”

We then devolved into a discussion about the need for more research. Click here for an archive of the entire chat.

2 responses to “SMEM chat focuses on New Zealand

  1. Great summary.

    On the exercise point, I’ve been musing on the same lines. What would be really useful would be a closed environment that looks like facebook/twitter etc. Comments could be prepared and injected at variable rates. You could then exercise just the SM portion of the response or incorporate it into full exercises.

    It would be short of the dynamic and fluid nature of SM in a real emergency but all exercises are aren’t they?

    I can see a couple of paths to this:
    ask the big platforms nicely if they will build such a platform. They might do that out of a sense of social responsibility. Request should probably come from a recognised body.
    ask crisis commons/camp if they fancy building such a thing. There are obvious intellectual property infringements but these could be overcome by asking for permission or by building a generic box which simulates the flow of information without replicating the look and feel of the proprietary systems.

    Who thinks this is a good idea?

  2. Thanks for the comment. Actually I think the companies that do the fake “CNN” injects for the large-scale exercises, are building something that will suffice as a offline example of social media. (I’m forgetting the specific company name that’s being used for the #NLE’11, but I could get it to you if you’re interested.)
    Regarding injects, that actually would be so easy to write and make seem real because there is a history from recent disasters searchable on google realtime with time stamps so the speed could be simulated as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s