Tag Archives: crisis commons

“Information Aid”: As important to disaster survivors as food

Post by: Kim Stephens

After a disaster, the flow of information on social networks is often thought of and discussed in terms of what is coming from the impacted community. We debate at length the value of this content, its veracity and how the first responder community could or should use this type of data. However, what is not discussed as often is the information being provided to the survivors and its impact on their recovery.

Social media have democratized the ability for people to provide what Patrick Meier calls “information aid” or  “information relief” to impacted communities (it is his notion that information is as important as food). This in turn has created a new kind of volunteer, a social media “content curator”.  A study in Australia, published by the Australian Journal of Emergency Management,  looked at this type of activity after the January 2011 flooding and cyclone events and found that citizens who start community-based social media pages (particularly facebook in this example) act as filters and amplifiers of official information for those that were impacted (see the example of this from Missouri). They conclude that not only does this type of activity help provide survivors with timely public safety related information but also enables a sense of “connectedness…both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance.” They call this  “psychological first aid” which aims to “reduce initial distress, meet current needs, promote flexible coping and encourage adjustment.” See this article for more info about psychological first aid. Their study is one of the first of its kind to look at the role of social media in this capacity and they found that people not only relied on these community pages for information, but that it did make them feel connected to others, encouraged by help given, and hopeful. Of note, the responses for feeling “suspicious or mistrustful of the information” were very low (4 and 5 %).

Content Curators

Although this type of volunteer is starting to become more formalized with efforts by organizations such as the Standby Crisis Task Force, CrisisCommons, and Humanity Road, it also can happen in a very spontaneous and, at first, unorganized manner with a person simply starting a Facebook fan page at the outset of a disaster. This example repeated itself again and again this year, and is best exemplified by the 18 year old girl that started a Facebook page in Monson, Massachusetts while still hunkered down in her basement as a tornado passed overhead. The page was titled simply “Monson Tornado Watch.” It grew to be one of the main sources of information for their town’s citizens as  volunteer organizations and regular citizens alike embraced it as a place to post any and all information they could find regarding response and recovery activities. Very quickly, one-fourth of the entire population became a “fan.” This page is still up and continues to be a place where people congregate virtually to provide and find information about recovery, as well as a place to connect and support each other.

Another great example of this type of social media spontaneous content curator  is from Joplin, Missouri, where many different people and groups started community-based pages with the intention of amplifying official information for survivors. One  facebook page, “Joplin Tornado Info” or JTI , even resulted in a guide: “Using social media in disasters“. JTI was started by a mother and daughter team with no public information or emergency management background. However, they understood the need for standard operating procedures, which they developed and detail in the guide.  Although the guide does not address the psychological reason behind the desire to start this type of facebook page, they do state that they simply wanted  “to be a clearinghouse for information, aid communication, and resources, not to champion any specific organization.”

Another reason their efforts were successful was due to their understanding of the scope of information they should be providing. “Ideally, a page covers a single  affected community.  Otherwise,  the information to be gathered and communicated  becomes  impossible to provide in a meaningful way to your  audience.” They also understood that people were often accessing this information on their smart-phones, sometimes while on their property cleaning up–not sitting at a computer watching the social stream. Therefore, their strategy was to repost vital contnet so that it didn’t get lost. “Timelines move fast, so reposting the same information during the day is a good idea.”

In conclusion, as emergency management organizations grapple with how to deal with this type of spontaneous volunteer, it is worth keeping in mind  what the authors of the Australian study found:

“…social media in this context is not to replace face-to-face support or contact, or to replace official warning services, but it can expand capacity to deliver information, extend the reach of official messages and limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting. A mix and balance of official and informal information sources and communication channels is likely to be the best way to enhance emergency management capability.

Empowering individuals and communities to help themselves through provision of accurate, timely and relevant information and a mechanism to connect with others are fundamental needs that social media can deliver. The dynamic and organic nature of social media is such that pages and sites take on a life of their own. Self-regulation and careful administration are elements that serve to ensure that the sites that succeed are those that listen and support the needs of their users.

SMEM Report Recommendation: Education and Knowledge sharing are needed.

Post by: Kim Stephens

The CNA report entitled “Social Media + Emergency Management Camp: Transforming the Response Enterprise” was written by Dr. Clarence Wardell and Yee San Su  in order to document the findings from the first-ever SMEM camp, and almost more importantly, to explore how social media and emerging communication technologies are changing the way we disseminate and receive information before, during and after a crisis. (See this blog post by Heather Blanchard of  Crisis Commons’ that summarize the report and the SMEM effort in general.)


The authors offer 3 key findings and six recommendations for moving forward if we would like to see widespread adoption of social networking by the emergency management community. One of the six recommendations is the need for continued education and knowledge sharing. Specifically the authors state that we need to

“Make the continued creation and refinement of training and knowledge-sharing opportunities for emergency management practitioners a priority. The 2011 SMEM Camp format was an experiment that was well received by the majority of participants.”

As the authors indicate, in this early stage of the use of social networking as a tool for crisis communications, there are still many unsettled questions that can pose significant challenges to adoption. This includes a lack of clarity with regard to laws, policy and guidance. The authors state, that we are in a “Wild West situation, as the available technology has surpassed the rules and guidance that are currently in place.”

However, with that being said, there are many organizations that are using these tools in creative ways and we can measure their success  based on their own stated goals and objectives. Even though there are no formally recognized and accepted  “best practices” we are certainly starting to understand the value these organizations are gaining from using these tools. Informally, many of us, including myself, often find organizations that are doing great work in this area and promote these efforts as best practice examples. As Dr. Wardell inferred, highlighting these successes will help us create “buy-in and subsequent adoption and investment [from other] organizations.”

Knowledge Sharing

As forerunning agencies use social networking tools on a daily basis and during real-world disaster events, they are also learning effective strategies. The sharing of that knowledge is invaluable.  Nonetheless, as the technology and adoption rate matures,  I do expect that we will also need to have better answers to the following questions:

  • What does an effective public safety SM presence look like?
  • What metrics can be used to determine success?
  • How can we measure impact–e.g. what are the “outcomes” versus the “outputs”?

Furthermore, knowledge sharing does not necessarily have to take place in a conference or a formal setting. Hundreds of emergency management professionals engage in knowledge sharing on this topic on a daily basis on twitter via the #SMEM hashtag.  There are also many emerging sources of information, including blogs and wikis specifically for this topic. For instance, see the Emergency 2.0 Wiki from Australia whose stated purpose is to “share and advance knowledge, by providing best practice guidelines on how to utilize social media in all phases of emergency communications.”  These guidelines, when fully fleshed out, will provide an amazing resource for all public safety organizations. 

Discussion Points

In the meantime,  below I list some of the more important questions most people raise when discussing social media usage for crisis communications. As you will notice, these discussion points relate to processes, internal procedures, goals and objectives, NOT how to use specific tools. The social networks may change (e.g tumblr versus facebook) but organizations can build structures, policies and procedures that enable them to engage on any social platform. (Each of these subjects are addressed, to some extent, in the CNA report.)

  • Why should public safety organizations use these tools? (e.g. Is there a broad use of social networks in your community? Does your local news media expect to receive information via social networks? )
  • What are your organization’s stated goals for public outreach (no matter what tool you utilize) in each phase of the emergency continuum? This will ultimately help determine if the effort is successful.
  • What resources (human and technical) are necessary to implement a social media campaign during each phase of a crisis?
  • What resources are available to augment your staff in a crisis–e.g. virtual support?
  • Who in your organization should be using the tools on a daily basis and who should be using the tools during a crisis?
  • How have other public safety organizations structured themselves to rapidly update SM content in a crisis? How have they integrated these efforts with other agencies and channels? How does this relate to the Incident Command System?
  • How can public safety organizations collect, sort, and verify data from social networks to provide real-time situational awareness?
  • What policies need to be changed or adjusted in your organization in order to allow for personnel to use these tools?
  • What is the policy regarding publicly provided content? This relates to both storage of the data for FOIA purposes, and how to deal with comments, questions and concerns raised through these platforms.
  • What are some effective strategies for reaching the intended audience with preparedness, response and recovery messages? (Strategies do change during each phase.)

As a side note, the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) has contracted with Mantitou, Inc. to develop social media training. The company is in the early data collection stage and has asked the SMEM community to assist them in their effort by providing the following:

  •  best practices in utilization of social media in all phases of emergency management;
  •  examples of measured impact from use of social media;
  • challenges and solutions or approaches to implementing and advancing use of social media within emergency management organizations.

(If you are interested in providing content for this effort let me know and I can pass that info along to their team.)

To view the CNA  report and its resources you can click to http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/SMEM_Initiative or the below links:

SMEM chat: Monitoring Social Networks–how do we listen?

Post by: Kim Stephens

This week the SMEM chat topic was: “How we use social media in an emergency and how do we listen?”  This is an important topic–as someone pointed out, one of the first emergency responders to adopt social media, Brian Humphrey of LAFD, once stated that  70% of Social Media is active listening. Click here for transcript on “What the Hashtag”.

Q1: Do different emergencies require different kind of monitoring?

Yes and no, the tools are probably the same, especially since there aren’t that many monitoring tools available. But different types of events probably require different tactics–for example, a natural disaster vs. a man-made or terrorist-type event; or a fluid vs static crisis. Chris Hall who monitors events daily, explains that  during a fluid event such as a wildfire, keeping up with situational awareness via mapping is very important. In contrast, after the Japan quake, the tactics included identification of victims in the affected area, rescue needs and first aid needs. This was followed by identification of needs of the survivors, such as shelter, food, water, etc.

Kate Starbird of “Tweak the Tweet” who also monitors SM daily, suggested that differences that do matter seem to be notice vs. no-notice crisis events, as well as the number of people affected, geographic location, culture and language.

Of course, in a terrorist type event, Chris points out that you will need to be listening to see if anyone is trying to intentionally propagate misinformation. Additionally, information coming from response organizations probably will be much more guarded.

Follow on Q: Does your strategy change given the scale of an emergency if so, how?

Large events require more of everything, including the need to listen more. This might require more listeners, which of course led to the question of who will be available to help with that task? See thorough discussion of this point below. Also, Chris pointed out that during a large-scale event people from all over the world will be listening.

Q3: Do different channels get different info?

This is an interesting question which really points to why you, as a response organization, can’t just be wedded to one type of social media platform. The CDC, for example, uses 17 different social media tools–and I’m probably understating the number. In Japan, facebook and twitter aren’t the most popular social media platforms.

This discussion, however, quickly went into a facebook vs. twitter convo. Wendi Pickford suggested that you can explain information more in-depth on FB than on twitter, and therefore you can squash rumors a little easier there. Others, including Wendy Harman of the American Red Cross, seemed to think FB was more important for relationship building.

Twitter Monitoring:

On twitter, the tools for listening are fairly straightforward, including following the hashtags people are using for the crisis; following key actors such as community leaders, local media, other response organizations; and by using matrix tools (such as tweetdeck) to follow multiple streams of info. Other tools, such as google realtime search don’t even require that you have a twitter account to follow what’s happening. These are all mostly free tools, but there are some vendors that are now selling applications that incorporate SM monitoring and data into their overall situational awareness platforms. But if cost is a concern, organizations can start monitoring with the free tools first.

Facebook Monitoring:

Facebook is much different mainly because it is often presumed that you cannot monitor people’s pages unless you are personal “friends”– even if they are one of your fans.  Kate Starbird mentioned how FB is difficult to monitor due to stricter privacy policies, as well as the fact that there’s no real ability to aggregate data from FB sites “Facebook doesn’t allow collection/monitoring, except in-house.”

But @EmergencyTraffic pointed to some tools you can use to monitor facebook–linked above.  As I’ve noted before, if your response organization attracts people to your page as the “go to” source for information, then people will post situational awareness information as comments–especially if you asked specific questions.

But, I have found that some FB pages are not necessarily even monitored very well on a daily basis. This example on the right is from a state emergency management organization’s page. They have allowed a young woman to post questionable content to their wall. This has been up for seven days and is still one of the first posts you see when going to their site. Some would use this example as an excuse why they shouldn’t engage at all, so I’d like to make three quick points:

  1. Your policy should state that people canNOT advertise on your page.
  2. Monitor often enough so that you can remove  irrelevant postings.
  3. Don’t allow people to post to the wall, just in the comment section.

Q4: Resources—staffing and volunteers–how do we get the people to make this work? Many EOCs don’t have enough people to do their planned tasks, so who listens to the SM channels?


  1. 911 operators? I’ve heard some organization hint that maybe 911 operators would be the right resource for monitoring SM platforms. Most people on the chat, however, thought that was not the way to go since they are under-resourced to begin with and the skills necessary for monitoring and analyzing the data are not part of their normal functions. So would the answer lie in virtual volunteers instead? (See this article tweet 911, tweet 911 by @chiefb2, for a thorough discussion of the challenges associated with of this approach.)
  2. City County Employees: Chris suggested starting with city/county employees, who are already trusted–e.g. public works employees. Heather Blanchard calls this concept “sourcing your own crowd”. My concern, would be that their contracts would precluded them from this type of additional duty, particularly when incorporating the necessary training. It might work, however, if they volunteered and understood that they wouldn’t necessarily be compensated for the time.  But I can see the can of worms this might open.
  3. Local citizens who use social media. Cheryl Bledsoe suggested that EMs should be collaborating before a crisis with local heavy social media users. Jim Garrow indicated that Ozarks Red Cross and @MRCPhilly are planning to use volunteers for the monitoring function. I love what Kate Starbird said, however: “Real solution lies in combination [of] human computation, plus tools (crowd).”

4. CERT: This comment from Administrator Fugate led to a robust conversation about the role of CERT for social media monitoring. Some suggested it was not only a great idea, but was already happening (e.g. http://twitter.com/ecert).  Some suggested this concept could be broadened to include CERT members reporting observations through SM platforms such as preliminary damage assessments. But in order to make CERT SM monitoring a reality for most locations, standard training protocols would probably need to be established.  This new role would also have to be integrated into plans and exercises.

Cheryl Bledsoe, EM from Washington, stated that they don’t use CERT for SM monitoring “…because CERT, by theory, is self-deploying and not tasked out directly by the EOC.” She also noted that being able to use CERT or not would directly relate to their proficiency in the medium. To be honest with ourselves, most CERT members are not people who enjoy using these platforms in their daily lives. However, would this new function attract a different kind of volunteer? Maybe someone who might find this type of work more interesting than the normal CERT roles. Or, as Kate Starbird asked, could there be a special class of CERT just for social media monitoring?  But Cheryl asked, “Is this role, already being filled by organizations such as CrisisCommons?”

5. HAM radio operators: Others suggested using HAM radio operators for SM monitoring, and this is a discussion we have about every other week. Some people think it’s a great idea, others, not so much. It probably depends on the local HAMs these folks know personally.

6. Pre-trained EOC volunteers: Marcus Deyerin went in an entirely different direction, he stated that some OEMs use pre-trainined EOC volunteer support teams. So it might be “[e]asy to add SM monitoring positions to these groups.”

Alicia asked as a finally question: Why? Chris Hall summed it up: it’s expected, it’s important to the mission, and it improves situational awareness.

Follow up discussions recommended:

  • @densaer stated: “I think we need to reevaluate the role of PIOs re EM. More like intel functions.”
  • Via Patrice Cloutier: NIMS and other docs will have to be reviewed re; SM and roles in JIC for example.
  • eCERT training to monitor SM platforms (a toolkit: policy, best practices, all in one location).
  • Strategies for overcoming liability concerns with using volunteers to monitor SM for your response organization. (An already suggested strategy: “[having] a good plan and meaningful training.” via Kris Hoffman
  • Communicating through social media channels during the recovery phase.
  • Which elements of the response “own” the inbound and outbound messaging? via @dshawnfenn

A big thanks goes to the host Alicia Johnson, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Urban Area, as well as everyone who took time out of their busy days to engage. As always, I participated, but most of the thoughts expressed in this summary are not my own.

Links and resources for monitoring mentioned during the chat:


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: sm4em.org, 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.

Weapons of Mass Collaboration

Post by: Kim Stephens

The term “weapons of mass collaboration”, from the book Wikinomics by Tapscott & Williams 2008, seems like an appropriate description of the various new web technologies used by volunteer organizations in the response to the flooding in Pakistan. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=pakistan+floods&iid=9596750″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9596750/pakistan-flood-devastation/pakistan-flood-devastation.jpg?size=500&imageId=9596750″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]

Crisis Commons, which really matured as an organization during its response to the Haitian earthquake, has been able to harness the power of the internet, open-source software applications such as Ushahidi, and people’s desire to contribute during a disaster, into a concerted international effort to aid the Pakistani people. The tasks that volunteers are asked to complete run the gamut and are listed by task-type. The entire list is available on their wiki page, below is just a sampling:

  • translate Urdu and Pashtu messages into English
  • create a facebook datafeed
  • convert tweets into a language easily understood by computers (Tweak the Tweet)
  • read through volunteer agency activity reports and then plot them onto a map
  • verify and translate data input
  • map roads, towns, etc. in areas impacted by flooding

This web-based mass collaboration allows anyone to help, even without extensive computer skills. People can either go to a physical location during one of their crisis camps, happening all over the world from London to Silicon Valley; or they can help via virtual crisis camp from their home if they have a computer and an internet connection.

How does a “wiki” work?  Crisis Commons describes their own wiki page as “a volunteer and project collaborative space for organizing projects and efforts around disaster relief”. Anyone can edit a wiki page as long as they have logged on. The system is self regulating, if false information is posted then other contributors will delete it; furthermore, the page-history link keeps track of changes and who made them. The Crisis Commons’ page reminds me of  a virtual command center and includes situation reports, after action reports, strategic frameworks and deliverables: things familiar to any emergency management professional.

We have been hearing for a while about the global competitive economy, now there is also the global collaborative volunteer.