Social Media Foster Citizen-to-Citizen Aid After Disasters

One of several tornadoes observed by the VORTE...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

The recent tornadoes in the southern United States have demonstrated the strength of social media as tools for both communications and collaboration. Social media are usually discussed in the context of the immediate aftermath of a storm, e.g. in getting out the word regarding both the threat and then the immediate impact of an event. However, we are just beginning to understand the power of social networking tools during the recovery phase and their role in fostering citizen-to-citizen aid.

The recent article: Alabama Tornadoes: Twitter, facebook, other social media make a mark in disaster response, relief, is interesting in its lack of discussion of  government agencies.  Most of the “disaster response, and relief” mentioned in the article is from citizen to citizen or at least NGO to citizen. As an example, most of the Facebook pages or groups that they highlight were started by people who “just wanted to help”. These people probably do not have experience in disaster response, or training in crisis communications and might not have ever heard the acronym “NIMS”. Nonetheless, the pages they created served, or are serving, as “rallying points” for people in and out of the community. Some of these pages, such as from the one quoted below,  helped people find out about their loved ones:

“Someone would ask about a person they couldn’t get on the phone and another person would reply [on the facebook page] “Oh, I saw them out cleaning up debris,” Davis-Evans said.

Other posts allowed people who wanted to provide assistance to give it directly to those impacted or to hyper-local organizations, such as Churches:

A truck loaded with supplies from New York arrived at the church last week, courtesy of a former Alabama resident who saw the plea on Facebook. That donation came on the heels of boxes of supplies shipped from Austin, Texas; volunteers who showed up from Freeman, Ga.; and a check mailed from Orange County, Calif.

These findings in Alabama are not unique. After every crisis people and organizations are able to utilize social media to ask for help and, on the opposite side of the coin, to find opportunities to assist those in need. Of course this skirts traditional American Red Cross or NVOAD registration systems for tracking and educating volunteers. Those systems have been developed for a reason–people who self-deploy to an impacted area can often become part of the problem vs. the solution, and unwanted donations (particularly clothing) can overwhelm local response and volunteer organizations. But I do find the way people solicit very specific requests for help extremely interesting. There are several categories of solicitations.

1. Physical Labor: In the tweet above from May 26, the organization “Reach-a-Child” asks for people to help pack books for children. Other tweets ask people to donate physical labor to help distribute food and water, or to help remove debris.

2. Specific Items:
Some organizations ask for specific items to be donated–everything  from diapers to wheelchairs. This tweet shows a person asking for a BBQ smoker to be donated to what looks like might be a Church, based on the handle of the tweeter: “Preacherman”.

3. Monetary Donations: And of course, there are many request for monetary donations as well, which usually includes the ability to text to a specified number and donate a small sum.

Social Media are also used to rally the “troops”–as it were. Some communications simply relay the person’s intent to help in an effort to get others to come along:  “Going to work in #Joplin at the tyson food spot. Lowe’s parking lot…feeding people…please pass word around.” And interestingly, there are often unsolicited offers to survivors via social media. One Joplin hair salon, for example, tweeted their offer of free shampoos, styles “food, toys, etc. for victims.”

Possible Problems

All of this opportunity for people to help can create some problems. I have one example from  Australia to illustrate the issue. A humane society needed to evacuate animals from their soon-to-be flooded facility. They put out the word that they needed assistance via social media and folks showed up to help….for days, and days and days, well after the need was satisfied. In another example, here in the U.S. one solicitation for a wheelchair for a young man after the Alabama tornadoes was filled very quickly; however, the need kept being retweeted. This required the requesting organization to address people directly and ask them not to retweet.  Understanding how to stop a request is almost as important as understanding how to ask for assistance in the first place.

Aggregating Sites:

In Joplin, the website Rebuild Joplin, which, according to the site, is “Bright Futures initiative”  was up 36 hours after the tornado. They have the explicit mission of matching those that were impacted with those that want to help.  For those impacted the menu includes a list of resources:

  1. Food & Supplies (from adult clothing to toys)
  2. Housing & Shelter
  3. Services (with a handy list of categories from Auto to Tree Removal. Each tab has a list of  organizations or private companies offering the service and their contact information.)
  4. Missing Persons: (This tab just has three organizations that are involved with missing persons: MO Dept of Public Safety, ARC, and Americorp.)

The list of opportunities to help is essentially a mirror of “I have needs” page, and the site provides a categorized list of organizations and their contact information.  I think I have to agree with them that this page should “serve as a model for other communities affected by disasters.”

Organizations, however, even if they are listed on the website, will probably still feel compelled to send out tweets or post to their facebook pages about upcoming opportunities for volunteers.  Reaching people through social media platforms is one way to keep up attention after the national media have left. People who are following the event’s hashtags  or are part of an event-oriented facebook group (especially 1-2 weeks after a disaster) are also probably motivated to help.

Our thoughts go out to those who were recently impacted by these events.  I know this will be a long recovery, but it is great to see all of the ways communities are learning to use new resources, including social networking tools, to bring folks together to help each other and themselves.

One response to “Social Media Foster Citizen-to-Citizen Aid After Disasters

  1. Pingback: How Social Media is Changing Disaster Response – TIME « Geospatial Science and Technology Policy

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