Category Archives: Government Web 2.0

Social Media’s use during crises is becoming commonplace: What are we learning?

Post by: Kim Stephens

Social Media’s use during disasters is now a common occurrence, every new event has its related #hashtag. But what are we learning from these events? My colleague Claire B. Rubin and I were discussing the overarching question “is the frequency of use bringing new innovations, progress, and improvements to crisis communications?” I guess the crux of the question, though, depends on progress for whom? I think certainly the public has seen all of the above–innovation, progress and improvements, however, information dissemination isn’t necessarily propagated from traditional sources. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=boulder+colorado+fire&iid=9672580″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”205″ /]

I’d like to highlight two important thoughts regarding what we might be learning, and I’ll continue with this line of thinking for the next couple of days.

1. Are crisis communications improved by the use of social media or are social media the source of rumors and missinformation?

A new empirical study conducted by a research team at Yahoo addressed the question: Twitter Under Crisis: Can we trust what we RT?. The study focused on tweets after the Chilean earthquake with a focus on “the dissemination of false rumors and confirmed news”.

Our analysis shows that the propagation of tweets that correspond to rumors differs from tweets that spread news because rumors tend to be questioned more than news by the Twitter community. This result shows that it is posible to detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.

By analyzing tweets of 7 different items that were later confirmed as true against tweets of 7 different items that were later confirmed to be false, the authors of the study were able to understand “false rumor propagation”.  Overall, when an item was true, retweets (over 95%) affirmed the information, with a very low percentage of tweets denying–less than 1%. However, when an item was false, such as the tweet announcing the death of artist Ricardo Arjona, the number of retweets decreased considerably and the number of tweets denying the information increased markedly (over 50%). In other words, the community self-corrected the information.  The authors conclude:

This result suggests also a very promising research line: it could possibly detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.

The article also has a good bibliography for those interested in further reading.

2. Is progress occurring regarding the use of social media for crisis communications?

Another interesting presentation about the use of social media in disasters is called  “Community in Crisis: What Governments can learn from the Boulder Community’s usage of Social Media during the Boulder Fire”. The data were put together by Tery Spataro from Orange Insights. In this presentation, she demonstrates how people relied on social media, in particular twitter and Google maps with displays of aggregated data, to get information about everything from the status of the fire, to shelters, donations and opportunities to help aid victims.

Citizens not only filled the information void during the response phase, but are now using social media to help each other recover.

Of note:

  • 985,099 people were reached with tweets related to fire (#boulderfire)
  • A community map of the fire, created by a citizen using Google Maps,  included information regarding everything from fire areas, evacuation areas, emergency response info, and photos, and had over 1.8 million views
  • (Not in the slideshow, but I also found) A Facebook page dedicated to thanking firefighters called “Fourmile Heroes” with 1,857 fans. It was created by a group of Boulder citizens to help local firefighters who lost their homes.

In contrast, I found

  • The Boulder Office of Emergency Management, as of today,  has 674 friends on Facebook.
  • Boulder OEM has 464 followers on Twitter–they are following 0 people. Their last tweet was Sept. 17.
  • Boulder OEM did eventually launched a comprehensive website with fire-related information (so we should assume their efforts were concentrated there).

The author of the study concluded that the EM community should have had ready “a Twitter account, Map, Facebook, and include Mobile communications”.

I would argue that this slide-show demonstrates how progress is occurring. The progress, however, is maybe not what we expected. Maybe the progress is in how citizens are learning to help themselves. Boulder could become the ultimate demonstration of a resilient community.

Social Media and Web 2.0 Standard Operating Procedures: Guidance Material

Since the use of social media and or Web 2.0 (we really need a better lexicon here) is so new, some organizations might not yet have standard operating procedures developed regarding either implementation or overall strategy. Some of those procedures may include: workflow, managing comments, managing content,  statements of purpose, measures of success/metrics, or even which new media to engage in.

However, if you are responsible for implementing new media and not sure where to start, I recommend the blog Social Media Governance which has put together a wonderful database of social or new media policies (currently 154 total). The list includes government/non-profit policies from the American Red Cross to Walker Art Center; but the list also includes policies from businesses, the healthcare industry, as well general guidelines and templates. You can search for a policy related to your industry with the handy pull-down menu. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=twitter+image&iid=5243202″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”242″ /]

There are even policies from international agencies, for example there is a handy Social Media 101 guide from Australia. And although some of the information would not apply in the U.S. (e.g. government codes of conduct) there are a number of helpful tips that are universal.

The General Service Administration’s Social Media Handbook can also be found there and is quite useful, however, local governments might find information from “The County of Orange, California” more applicable.

Most policies will deal with pushing information, if you know of any organization that has policies regarding receiving info from the public through social media, please let me know.

I also want to highlight the recent GAO Report: Challenges in Federal Agencies’ Use of Web 2.0 Technologies, July 22, 2010. The report summary:

Federal agencies are using Web 2.0 technologies to enhance services and support their individual missions. Federal Web managers use these applications to connect to people in new ways. As of July 2010, we identified that 22 of 24 major federal agencies had a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

They then list the challenges federal agencies have faced regarding use of Web 2.0 technologies:

Privacy and security:

Agencies are faced with the challenges of determining how the Privacy Act of 1974, which provides certain protections to personally identifiable information, applies to information exchanged in the use of Web 2.0 technologies, such as social networking sites. …

Records management and freedom of information.

Web 2.0 technologies raise issues in the government’s ability to identify and preserve federal records.

The use of Web 2.0 technologies can also present challenges in appropriately responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests because there are significant complexities in determining whether agencies control Web 2.0-generated content, as understood within the context of FOIA.

Federal agencies have begun to identify some of the issues associated with Web 2.0 technologies and have taken steps to start addressing them. For example, the Office of Management and Budget recently issued guidance intended to (1) clarify when and how the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 applies to federal agency use of social media and Web-based interactive technologies; and (2) help federal agencies protect privacy when using third- party Web sites and applications.

Of course this was written for the federal government, however, some of the information is probably applicable to states and localities.

Related Articles

Huff Post blogger calls for investment in collaborative technology.

Huffington Post blogger, John D. Volpe, in a post entitled “Where Obama Should Invest Now” addressed the question of why the US government’s mapping tool deployed by the US Army in Pakistan, called HARMONIEweb, is not as effective as the crowdsourced products outlined in the Wired Danger Room’s report. I also mentioned those crowdsourced products, which include Ushahidi and Crisiscommons,  in my post yesterday. I asked the question: Will government agencies utilize existing social media and crisis mapping tools or feel compelled to pay contractors to create unique applications?

In Mr. Volpe’s piece, he argues that the US government should invest in building a proper infrastructure for disaster response, “perhaps even using Ushahidi’s collaborative platform.” However, he somewhat contradicts himself in the following statement:  [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9784269″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”155″ /]

The bottom line is that we cannot continue to primarily rely on the open-source community to guide our military humanitarian efforts, disaster relief or other essential services. If the White House made the decision [to invest $250 million into this project]…by Thanksgiving, I believe that one-year later:

  • The State Department would have a robust tool conducing and measuring public diplomacy;
  • The Pentagon would have tools for managing humanitarian aid;
  • The Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force would have the resources to truly help military families in need;
  • The Education Secretary would have a tool for keeping in constant contact with teachers, parents and students about the issues of the day and areas to improve; and
  • Law enforcement would have the tools necessary to curb violent and white-collar crimes.

The author states that if the investment were made: “Jobs would be created. Lives changed. And with everything that’s bad going on, what’s better than creating opportunities for Americans to go back to work and help their country.”

Maybe. But here’s what my cynical self thinks would happen: Big-time contractors would win the bids for the $250 million and then would completely recreate the wheel (e.g. HARMONIEweb 2.0); to continue the analogy, the wheel would not fit any cars currently made, and would have a proprietary system associated with it, so that when it goes flat, only that company would be able to fix it.

Maybe I’m being too cynical…

Are emergency response organizations dropping the social media “ball”?

Post by: Kim Stephens
Recently, I ran across two seemingly unrelated articles regarding disasters and social media and the thing that struck me was that first response organizations are not delivering information through social media as effectively as volunteers–some of which have virtually zero emergency management or disaster communications experience. This leads to several questions, but I do not have the answers:

  • Will response organizations rely on volunteers to curate information from now on, or will they feel the need to add staff  to complete these tasks?
  • Will the public somehow lose trust in government organizations that don’t provide timely information that seems easily obtained elsewhere?
  • Will government agencies utilize existing social media and crisis mapping tools or feel compelled to pay contractors to create unique applications? [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=natural+gas+pipeline+explosion&iid=9734854″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

The first article by Gary Oldham from the blog Wingineering, titled Twitter to the Rescue–Social Media’s Evolving Role in Disasters, provides a very good description of Twitter’s usefulness in disseminating valuable information during three recent disasters: the New Zealand Earthquake, the Colorado Wildfires, and the natural gas pipeline explosion in California. However, in most instances, response officials were “out-tweeted” by volunteers.  While acknowledging the use of social media by local public safety organizations, he points out:

“…but of course not all agencies use Twitter in this manner yet, and in some instances, may simply be too overwhelmed in the immediacy of dealing with mitigating the disaster to use social media in the evolving stages of the disaster.”

During the Colorado wildfires he mentions a handful of people, in no way related to any response organization, that curated the information from police and fire scanners–sometimes listening for hours on end, and also from other twitter feeds (e.g. offers of aid), and then tweeted or re-tweeted that information to their followers.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9759063″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /] The other example  is from a world away in Pakistan. An article in Wired magazine titled: “Pakistan Aid Groups Route Around U.S. Military for Relief Web” describes how volunteer-created crisis maps are used more by non-governmental organizations than the military’s “connection tool” called HARMONIEweb. The author noted that most NGOs working in Pakistan were not even aware that HARMONIEweb existed much less had participated in any of its forums or “chats.”  Instead NGO’s are relying on social media curated by volunteers like Sohaib Khan, a computer-science professor at the Lahore University of Management Scientists, [who] put together a widget  called Floodmaps that relies on Google Earth and Google Maps to track the path of the flood and monitor devastation like washed-out bridges that need to be rebuilt.”

Another group called Pakreport is involved in crisis mapping and information curation and is “staffed” with “an impromptu collection of Pakistani technologist and their mostly-American academic friends.”

  • Pakreport uses the Ushahidi mapping platform to display data gathered from  SMS text messages sent to the number 3441. “[f]lood-stricken Pakistanis can find their emergency information tracked by type and location, giving official and independent aid agencies a view into the evolving landscape of people’s needs.”

Crisiscommons is also active in this disaster, as they were in the response to the Haitian earthquake. Led by co-founder Heather Blanchard, a former DHS employee, a wiki page has been employed as a “connection tool” for survivors, volunteers located in-country and volunteers located thousands of miles away. Their resources page has an exhaustive list of resources, including Pakreport and Floodmaps, that address these questions: [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9741639″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”153″ /]

  • Where can I find out who needs my help?
  • Where can I find people to help me deliver aid?
  • Where can I find out information?
  • How do I find out if I’m about to be flooded?
  • Who should I alert/give my information to?
  • Where can I find general information out about #pkfloods?
  • Where can I search for people? (I cannot find my grandmother/relative)
  • I have been ‘found’ – who should I alert/give my status to?
  • I need food/water/supplies, how can I tell people I need something?
  • I have food/water/supplies, how can I find out where there’s a need?
  • I want to get to location x, where can I find out about the state of the roads?
  • I am observing/know the state of the roads, who should I alert/give my information to?
  • How can I find out where there are information blackspots/there is no telecomms coverage?
  • I know where the telecoms/information blackspots are, who should I give my alert/information to and how?

Tellingly, the list of resources does not include the HARMONIEweb site.
So, what’s the point?  It seems to me that the military is recreating the wheel for use in international humanitarian missions, while in the U.S., some local governments don’t seem to know the wheel exists.

The Wired article sums up this potential problem:

“U.S. forces in Pakistan have a few Web 2.0 tools of their own. But there’s a serious digital divide between the military and civilian tools. The armed forces’ efforts are pretty rudimentary, in comparison. They haven’t yet plugged in these independent Wiki creators and collaborative mapmakers — and may never.”

Texas town, a best practice in use of social media

QR Code for "An internet of things"

Image via Wikipedia

The new buzz phrase of the day is “open government”. At the national level this has led to many new initiatives, one of which is the DHS sponsored National Dialogue on Preparedness. This site allows people to submit ideas regarding preparedness grant programs and incentives. They encourage people to address:  “Which grant programs have been successful in building preparedness capabilities? Which programs can be improved? How can we effectively balance local emergency management needs with national mandates for security and resiliency?” People can vote on ideas with a virtual thumbs up or thumbs down.

At the local level,  Manor, Texas (population 5600) near Austin, Texas is using social media in many ways, not just Facebook, twitter, etc. but also for collaboration or “opening government,” similar to the DHS initiative. In Manor, good ideas can result in actual prizes (see “getting credit for your contribution”) in an effort to garner as much participation as possible. Their collaboration effort, called “Manor Labs,”  is described on their website as “an open innovation platform designed to allow you to help us solve problems that plague our local government...” The idea submission system is powered by the proprietary software Spigit and is worth perusing.

Manor is also currently engaged in a six month pilot program to test  a two-way communications platform which will allow citizens to send information to responders  during a crisis. This initiative is also powered by proprietary software developed by Civiguard. It will be interesting to see the results.

Another one of their initiatives is a system called  “QR-codes”. The White Paper entitled “Redefining Government Communication with QR-Codes” gives a complete account of the capability, but in general it is a bar-code system that allows users to receive on-demand information via their smart phone and a hyperlink:

After installing free decoding software (listed in the resources section), an individual can scan a City of Manor QR-code with their camera phone. They are taken directly to the linked site or prompted with the embedded URL. Although each QR-code appears to be the same image, each links to separate websites relevant to their location and placement.

An example of how it will be used:

Eventually, the City of Manor will tie the QR-codes on city vehicles into a realtime work order system so that if a resident is curious about why a city vehicle is in their neighborhood, they could simply scan the side of the vehicle for a real-time work order update. This would bring a layer of transparency to government that was never possible before.

I have not listed all of their initiatives, but I encourage anyone interested to take a look at what all this very small Texas town has been able to accomplish.

Review of “Dynamic Technologies for Smarter Government”

A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in i...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by Guest Blogger: Art Botterell

Power is a Conversation

To its credit, consulting firm KPMG doesn’t claims that its new whitepaper “Dynamic Technologies for Smarter Government” is a scientific study.  It’s a marketing document targeted on the firm’s government clients.  As such it can’t be expected to point a critical finger at its customers’ standards and practices. That said, this report does a good job articulating, albeit parenthetically, a couple of the deep challenges of government in a Web 2.0 world.

“While sharing data is a growing trend for today’s government entities, in order to significantly improve government operations, changes should be coupled with new approaches for collaboration about solutions.”

One might question whether there’s as much actual growth in data sharing in government as in talk about it.  But the net effect (pardon the pun) is to make greater collaboration desirable, if not inevitable:

“In the 20th century, public sector agencies operated under the specialized ‘expertise’ model of the industrial era.  Agencies were often self-contained groups managing business processes and mission activity in a silo…Co-design and delivery of policies, programs and services with citizens, businesses and civil society provides the potential to tap a broader reservoir of ideas and innovative solutions.”

No mention of the dilution of official control as stakeholders use social media to implement some of those solutions for themselves. “Co-design,” maybe, but no fundamental change in the role of official agencies. Gently, toward the end of a proffered framework for agencies “responding to forces of change” the authors invoke the term “organizational change management,” thus keeping the customer comfortably in the driver’s seat:

“Organizational change management is a key component of implementing any of these innovations.  These changes represent a shift in the attitudes of people and who they interact and share information in the internet-enabled world.  They imply a willingness to accept some risk in order to collaborate and interact.”

One might call that masterful understatement. Ultimately the writers cast all this as a generational trend:

“The future generation of government workers is much more comfortable with collaborative online problem-solving than previous generations.”

And that generalization, unencumbered by evidence or qualification, is an example of the difference between marketing and science.  It sounds like it might be true, but is it really?  Does it matter?  Or is it more important that the authors sound like they can offer an antidote to uncertainty?

We’re just starting to see genuine data-based research on how social media actually work, for example a number of papers from the recent ISCRAM conference in Seattle.  And of course it’s early days yet, so we can’t assume that things will work the same way in the coming year as they were in the past.

In the meantime, a lot of what seems like authoritative documentation in this field right now is marketing, not science.  Which is fine as long as we don’t lose track of the difference.