Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options and Policy Considerations

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Post by: Kim Stephens
The Congressional Research Service recently released this 13 page report “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options and Policy Considerations” by Bruce R. Lindsay. I have attached the link to the document below. Thanks to Claire B. Rubin for bringing it to my attention.

Mr. Lindsay states that the report was written due to “congressional interest and discussion concerning how social media might be used to improve federal response and recovery capabilities” [emphasis added].  In order to speculate on potential federal uses beyond information dissemination, the author explores and summarizes how the medium has been used by the emergency management community. He addresses “potential benefits, as well as the implications, of using social media in the context of emergencies and disasters.”

Although the report is written to describe how social media can be utilized by FEMA, it seems to miss the mark on several fronts. For example,  when discussing the medium’s use during the recovery phase he states:

“…the agency could provide information concerning what types of individual assistance is available to individuals and households, including how to apply for assistance, announcing application deadlines and providing information and links to other agencies and organizations that provide recovery assistance, such as the American Red Cross, or Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans for homes and businesses.”

Although this is true, I don’t think this statement really points out the real potential of the technology. For example, community groups are currently leveraging  these networks to manage donations and volunteer efforts in a much more horizontal, collaborative fashion. Tools have been built, for example, that match people’s needs with other’s desire to help. In the process, they essential take government out of the equation. See this post: “Using Social Media to Aid Recovery” which describes how and why platforms such as Rebuild Joplin  were created. Essentially, the organizers of the site built it to filled a void. They provided a place for the public to find “trusted resources and dependable information”.

It took less than 36 hours for a team of volunteers to build the site, verify information, and announce the launch. Led by volunteers and the crew from SPI Creative, Rebuild Joplin will serve as a model for other communities affected by disasters.

The Joplin tool and others like it, including the wiki envisioned by Eric Holdeman in the article “Disaster Wiki: Get Ready Now to Harness the Power of Social Media,” I believe are the future of disaster recovery. Perhaps the author could have asked what the federal government could do to help foster the development of these types of sites and tools before a crisis occurs, versus focusing on just how to use these networks to disseminate information in a unilateral fashion after an event.

I also find this paragraph a little baffling:

Many residents experienced power outages lasting 48 hours or longer after Hurricane Irene. Yet many smartphones and tablets have battery lives lasting twelve hours or less depending on their use. Although social media may improve some aspects of emergency and disaster response, overreliance on the technology could be problematic under prolonged power outages. Thus emergency managers and officials might consider alternative or backup options during extended power outages, or other occurrences that could prevent the use of social media.” [emphasis added]

From personal experience, people will do whatever it takes to keep their cell phones charged. Of course we should always consider alternative ways to get information to people, but we should also discuss mitigation measures,  such as the rapid deployment of cell phone charging stations to allow for information to flow in ways most familiar to our populations. This seems to be a lesson learned after each big event.

His last sentence, however, I find to be the most confusing, given the increasing evidence of the importance use social media before, during and after a crisis. He states:

“It could be argued that the positive results of social media witnessed thus far have been largely anecdotal and that the use of social media is insufficiently developed to draw reliable conclusions on the matter. By this measure, it should therefore be further examined and researched before being adopted and used for emergencies and disasters.

His suggestion that adoption of these tools take place after “further examination is completed” is not really an option. Citizens, community organizations, volunteers and governments are already using social media for emergencies and disasters.   Although I would agree that we all still have a lot to learn, I believe, as they say in my native Texas “the horse has already left the barn”.

Click this link to see the CRS report. Social_media_9-06-11-1   If you have trouble, the article was also linked here: <http://www.fiercegovernmentit.com/story/crs-warns-social-media-abuse-during-emergency-response/2011-09-13>.

7 responses to “Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options and Policy Considerations

  1. Regarding commentary in the use of smart phones and twelve hours of battery capability. My son just went through the outage in San Diego and the problem was not the battery on the phone, but the fact that the cell towers (at least in his area of mid-town San Diego) had no power and the only phone communication was via land line, hard wired phones.

  2. Pingback: New Report from the Congressional Research Service: Social Media and Disasters « GEODATA POLICY

  3. What made me look at this report sideways is the dated examples of social media in disasters. Social media has changed so much in the past 2-3 years that examples from 2007 — and some from 2009 — are already a generation/version (if you will) behind.
    The author’s conclusion that social media is a supplement to the 911 call system indicates a lack of interest in the details as to myriad of problems in the implementation. It is an area where public expectation is far from the reality where emergency management exists.

  4. Thanks for you comments. I agree, I found the information extremely dated and some of his conclusions were based on speculation.

  5. We have to remember that this type of research and report is ponderous in nature. It does reflect the situation of 3-4 years ago and is not relevant.

    Misses the point. Emergency managers need to move at the speed of their audiences and stakeholders which includes a lot of people and organizations that are already operationalizing their use of social media in preparedness, response and recovery.

    By the time, official studies, pilot projects and further observations are conducted, the rest of society will be there already. Best to look current practices and adapt them for your own use …

    Nice start though

  6. Patrice,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree 100%. We need to move out and make adjustments along the way based on best practices. I think that’s why your work is so important!

  7. I’d like to extend Patrice’s point a little. On the positive side emergency managers move at the speed of their audiences and stakeholders. On the negative side emergency managers can only move at the speed of their stakeholders.

    If senior decision makers within organisations don’t recognise the implications of this technology their emergency planners and managers won’t be able to access the skills and resources necessary. In emergency management terms this technology is racing along.

    In the UK we saw student protesters using social and mobile to track and avoid police in late 2010 but police tactics hadn’t changed to anticipate the use of this technology when the riots broke out in August. They are changing now of course.

    But I’m preaching to the choir here.

    Great post Kim.

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