Here’s what I learned at the SMEM camp: March, 2011.

Post by Kim Stephens,

The SMEM community chats on Fridays at 12:30EST, we share daily on the SMEM hashtag articles and info,  but this week marked the first time this community came together, in person, in the style of a crisis “camp”.  I was describing how the camp came to be to one of the participants and I kept using the word “we” and “us”.   “We” organized the breakouts; some of “us” approached NEMA to allow for the day in conjuction with their National Conference; “we” will be organzing other similar events. A particpant stopped me and said: “Who is WE?” So, if you are wondering the same thing, here’s how “we” have defined ourselves on the CrisisCommons wiki page:

SMEM is an open community with participants from federal, state and local crisis management entities and those who support domestic incident response systems including private sector, non-government organizations (NGO), technology volunteer communities and individuals.
In November 2010 a group of people coalesced around this idea, established the #SMEM hashtag and a theme “bridging Social Media and Emergency Management”.#SMEM seeks to build a common understanding and “experience exchange” to support the use and inclusion of social media, public data and technology innovation to support mission objectives of emergency management to prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate against disasters.

Why does this group feel compelled to volunteer their time, effort and often personal expense (particularly when traveling this week) in order to advance this agenda? I think this one tweet might say it all. If 500,00 people are going to social media platforms in a crisis in the first 24 hours, we, as the emergency managment community need to be prepared to comunicate in that medium.

So what did this meeting accomplish? The stated goal was simply: “To discuss social media and new technology’s integration into the disaster continuum, in public, private and non-governmental organizations; to examine issues, opportunities, and challenges surrounding this new form of communications; and to lay the foundation for the development of solutions to questions and concerns raised by the emergency management community.”

Lea Shanley and I were responsible for the session on policy, “Perceived barriers and proposed solutions”. I think we really addressed the latter part of that objective “questions and concerns”.  The thing I found the most fascinating was how limiting these barriers really can be. One local government representative told our break-out group that they engage in social media at all times–expect during a crisis. Here’s how she described it: “Let’s say, we tell people they should evacuate because we heard through social media channels that a fire had shifted and was now headed in their direction. But then, the fire shifts while they are evacuating and now they are in harms way. We could be liable for giving them wrong information.” So instead of having to worry about how to monitor social media and how to put out timely information, they shut it off altogether. That was very interesting and a little depressing, frankly, to hear.

The other impression I got from some of the attendees in my session was that for some organizations, it’s just too hard. They described the barriers as too high. These barriers include: how to protect personal privacy data; how to archive the information; how to keep the public from using it as a 911 system; how to keep out the trolls that add horrible information to your page–e.g. they are uncomfortable with the “social” aspect altogether; how to treat the information as a record; how do we write all of these policies with limted staff/resources. I think the overarching theme could be summarized as follows: How do we keep from getting sued? However, despite these seemingly impassable obstacles, we  were able to walk away with a sense that amongst all of this anxiety, there is opportunity.

3 Opporunities to move past these perceived barriers:

1. Engage senior leaders to discuss benefits of social media as another means of communication. If an organization’s senior leaders, to include the political leadership, can understand the importance of engaging the community through these social platforms, then and only then, will they be willing to put effort into overcoming these barriers. Furthermore, by taking the mystique out of the medium, senior leaders might better understand why it’s important (e.g. people kept referring to how these barriers had to be overcome when email was introduced). The folks in attendance did think that overall, it can be demonstrated that the pros of social media do outweigh the cons.

2. Demonstrate value through examples in other cities, counties and states and get a mentor to help you through the process. Best practice examples are always a great way to demonstrate value, but I think Shayne Adamski from FEMA, made a great suggestion in his final summary at the end of the day. He said, find a mentor from another city to guide you. The camp was the first step in that mentoring process, but more people can actively search out mentors from the SMEM hashtag. There’s always comfort in knowing that someone else is doing this, and learning from their experiences.

3. Find example policies and guidelines. Regarding policies in particular, there are many policies that have been written by other EM agencies (local or state). These can be used as a starting point in order to reduce the amount of effort an Agency’s legal team would need to devote to development. Many resources already exist, and attendess of the camp, now know where to find that information. I’ll list a few resources here:, my bibliography, and IACP Center for Social Media.

On a personal note, I have worked with the people on the SMEM tag since last November, and I knew how devoted and dedicated these people were already. But, having the pleasure to meet them in person was an amazing experience. This is most professional and committed group of people I have ever been associated with-ever.

3 responses to “Here’s what I learned at the SMEM camp: March, 2011.

  1. Love it, Kim! Sorry I couldn’t make it to what sounded like an amazing set of sessions. And I don’t know if I could restate the last sentence any better–I’m in complete agreement.


  2. Pingback: Social Media + Emergency Management Camp Comes to NEMA « CrisisCommons

  3. Pingback: I’m Excited, But Now What? - Social Media 4 Emergency Management - Social Media 4 Emergency Management

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