Post by: Kim Stephens
I recently gave a talk to University Emergency Managers about how they can use social media to enhance their communications with students, particularly during the preparedness and response phases. This presentation is available here: Social Media’s Application for Universities.
The great thing about talking to this audience is that they understand that almost 100% of their population is using web-based and/or mobile communications. Therefore, I spend zero time putting up statistics on who is using social media and why it’s important. They get it. So instead, I introduce some concepts and ideas they might not have considered.
Universities are adept at using social media for public relations, as an example, Texas A&M’s main facebook page has 200,000+ fans. But when it comes to communicating public safety information the number of fans on those pages (both the emergency management page and the campus police page) drops dramatically. This almost begs the question whether or not this information should be posted to the main site. Some universities have already come to that conclusion, and I think it is probably a good idea.
I have also found that quite a bit of emergency preparedness info is still very much stuck in a web 1.0 world. We all have an arsenal of “fact sheets” and quite a few emergency management organizations simply post them to their website. One sheet, not from A&M, described the dangerous localized flooding that occurs almost every year in and around the University. The page implored the kids to “KNOW YOUR FLOOD RISK”. However, I have to wonder how many student ever saw or read that sheet. There are a lot of things competing for students’ attention, to say the least. Hazard identification is probably not at the top of the list–unless of course they are geography students.
So, even if information is posted to the most trafficked site, and not in the form of a bland fact sheet, how can we ensure our message gets through, particularly preparedness information that tends to be ignored?
1. Games. One new hot term is “gamification.” It is described as “the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users.” In other words, not only making something fun but also challenging and rewarding. The reward does not have to be tangible, in fact, it turns out earning status is more of an incentive than earning a trinket.
Some Universities are already using mobile or web-based platforms to engage student with games like SCVNGR, mostly to orient freshman students to campus. The game is a mobile application for iPhone or Android. Others are designing their own scavenger hunts using applications such as Foursquare. Texas A&M used this app to encourage all of their students to explore the campus (5200 acres) but with the unadvertised motive of boosting the number of student followers to the University’s twitter account.
Although this example did not include emergency preparedness information, I have to ask, why not have students find campus safety features such as tornado shelters, fire extinguishers, evacuation routes or even identify hazards, such as the aforementioned flash flood areas?
2. Games or prizes for visitors One issue for campus emergency managers is that there are often huge influxes of visitors to their campuses for special events, particularly sporting events. How can we get information to these folks? Twitter has a handy fast follow feature that’s well known to the #SMEM community but not as well known by others. A University Office of Emergency Management could ask visitors to text from their cell phones to the number 40404 “follow @universityEMA” . This would allow campuses to get all kinds of information into the palm of every visitor. In order to get people to use the feature, a free cola product could be offered at the football game, for example. In order to make people understand the benefit, tweets should have useful info such as what streets on campus are closed to traffic and how to most quickly exit the parking lot. But don’t forget to remind people how to turn the feature off after they leave!
3. Crowdsourcing. Challenges, like the ones the federal government have been designing since early 2009–see challenge.gov, work by asking the public or the “crowd” to submit solutions in order to win a reward, usually a small sum of cash but occasionally just status. Universities are particularly well suited for this type of innovate problem solving because they have 1. a huge talent pool to pull from and 2. class credit and other natural campus incentives to give away (football season passes, etc). The emergency management community should get into the act by creating a challenge designed to find creative ways to get preparedness information to the student body. This is also important because if we try to create something #fun students might see it as #lame.
4. Crowdsourcing after the crisis. Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, I believe, was the first person to coin the term “bound crowdsourcing”. This concept limits the crowd to a smaller group of trusted agents. As an example, monitoring information from social media after a crisis would not have to be a completely open process, but could be limited to this group of trusted sources (e.g. a twitter list of these folks could be constructed) . This is another thing college campuses have in abundance, a plethora of people that are trusted with student safety everyday: graduate assistants, professors, resident advisors and staff. I propose that these people could be trained to send information to emergency services after a crisis via text message or twitter in order to indicate the situation around campus–particularly non-emergency information. SMS text or twitter are important because they tax bandwidth much less than voice. I can envision this working after a crisis where, for example, professors or RAs could text whether or not all of their students are accounted for and provide prelimarly damage assessment information as well.
School is starting soon and September is National Preparedness Month. Let’s get creative!