Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

#CrisisMapping for Recovery: Crisis Clean Up–A Collaboration Tool

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_8179611271A truism in emergency management is that after a disaster thousands of people want to volunteer–the more high profile the event the more show up, sometimes creating a second disaster. Having a system to organize these altruistic individuals is critical.  As one researcher states: “…the effectiveness of volunteerism depends highly upon how well volunteers and voluntary groups and organizations are coordinated.  In this sense, having vast numbers of people and supplies frequently pose serious challenges for emergency management.”  Coordination, in turn, depends on clear, consistent, and timely communications (FEMA). But how is this done effectively?

The Problem

Aaron Titus, a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, knows the ends and outs of volunteer coordination all too well. The faith-based group he is associated with can mobilize thousands of people–ready, willing, and able to work. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened: Aaron faced a veritable army of over 20,000 volunteers who needed to complete thousands of tasks across a large geographic area. How could he provide “clear, consistent, and timely communications” as well as a method to determine, track and record what everyone was doing? And…what about all of the other non-spontaneous organizations that also showed up to help?

medium_8236682972Coordinating not only what his own group was doing, but also ensuring that they were not duplicating efforts or leaving out survivors who needed assistance, was a problem that seemed insurmountable. BUT he had a secret weapon. During the southern New Jersey “derecho” storms of July, 2012 he had used  the little programming knowledge he had to sort out a simple, yet brilliant, software solution. With a  job as big as Sandy, he enlisted the help of other developers, including Jeremy Pack, to create a more robust version of that solution that ended up being utilized by more than 100 organizations.

The Tool

What Aaron created, essentially, was a work-order-system/Crisis Map. The system has the following basic components (see an example map here).

  • Intake: An online intake request/assessment form is made available to 2-1-1. This enables the 2-1-1 operator to input information (as non-personally identifiable, as possible) about where the work needs to be done, who is requesting, and what is being requested. These forms are customizable–for instance, if a disaster hit an area with a large population of non-English speakers, a field for “language spoken” could be added.
  • ccuLegendTracking: A case number is generated for each request and the form syncs to a map–automated fields are included to alleviate confusion, for instance,  the county-field is automated. Whether or not the work is on private or public property is also noted–which is VERY important.  Communities need to keep track of all public volunteer work in order to count this against FEMA’s public assistance contribution requirements.
  • Categorization: The software includes categories and codes for the work order request based on completion and type. Regarding completion,  a red icon indicates work is “unassigned,” yellow means “claimed,” green is “completed,” and grey is “out of scope.” There are two categories of work indicated: flood damage or tree/wind damage. This distinction is made because some organizations do not let volunteers operate chain saws.
  • Assignments:  Affiliated organizations, as well as organizations that can prove they are legitimate, are allowed to access the map in order to claim work and record completed work. By claiming work, the group essentially says, “We can do this one.”
  • Stop-Gaps: The system has features that prevent the same request from being recorded more than once. When the 2-1-1 operator starts to enter a name or address a field pops up listing all similar entries.
  • Updates: The volunteers doing the work can update the status on the software system, which is seen by the 2-1-1 operator. If someone calls back to 2-1-1 asking about the status,  the operator can see if a group (as well as which group) has claimed the work.
  • Reporting: 2-1-1 staff can generate summary reports about the work requested and completed to provide to local or state emergency management officials.

*****In response to a few questions on Twitter, there’s one point of clarification. The ability to sign-up for the tool is available to any organization participating in recovery, including 2-1-1.

Unique Solution

There are a couple of things about this  volunteer-work-order system that are unique. For one, no group is “assigned” tasks or even a geographic area–as is often done using a grid technique. They can choose what, when and where to work on their own. Also, even though the system is online, the privacy of the requestor is protected–only those groups that have been granted access can see all of the detailed information: the public-facing maps on the Crisis Clean Up website do not include homeowners names, addresses or phone numbers–see example below.

I also like that this system is integrated into the existing government partnership with United Way’s 2-1-1. A lot of State and local communities have started to use 2-1-1 to communicate emergency recovery information. For example, officials in New Jersey state “…2-1-1 is a critical communication link between emergency management professionals and the public-at-large. By the very nature of the 2-1-1 system, NJ 2-1-1 is perfectly positioned to respond immediately during times of crisis. It is structured to manage the expected high volume of crisis-related calls and the 2-1-1 staff is trained to direct callers to services most appropriate for their needs.”



So how much does this all costs? Unfortunately, it is free for anyone to use. Why  “unfortunately?” Free usually means that the product or the solution is not sustainable–although it is open source. They do have a “donate” button on the website, but I’m guessing their list of contributors is quite small. Aaron and his team work on this software tool as a labor of love–however, I’m sure they would be happy if the Knight Foundation, or another philanthropic organization provided them the necessary cash flow to ensure disaster-impacted communities could have access to this amazing tool. If you are interested in volunteering with them I’m guessing Aaron would be pleased to hear from you–especially if you are a seasoned grant writer! Contact him via Twitter @aarontitus.

Bonus Video:

Volunteer photo 1. Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunaparknyc/8179611271/”>Luna Park Coney Island</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Volunteer photo 2. Credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/vixwalker/8236682972/”>Vix Walker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Note: Developer Andy Gimma now co-leads the Crisis Cleanup project, along with Chris Wood.

The Work of Disaster Reporting in the Age of Digital Distortion

Post by: Kim Stephens

18_21_07_900_fileAcademics from IBM Research Labs in India; Indraprastha Institute for Information Technology, Delhi, India; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore  County collaborated on an article titled: Faking Sandy: Characterizing and Identifying Fake Images on Twitter during Hurricane Sandy.” This article is interesting in light of the events in Boston and the debate about the veracity of content on social media. Although there hasn’t been time to do complete quantitative data analyses of the Marathon bombing social media feeds, this research adds to the increasing collection of academic studies that can help us better understand how misinformation is distributed on social platforms, specifically Twitter, and how  it can be easily and quickly identified as false.


In today’s world, online social media plays a vital role during real world events, especially crisis events. There are both positive and negative effects of social media coverage of events, it can be used by authorities for effective disaster management or by malicious entities to spread rumors and fake news.

The aim of this paper, is to highlight the role of Twitter, during Hurricane Sandy (2012) to spread fake images about the disaster. We identified 10,350 unique tweets containing fake images that were circulated on Twitter, during Hurricane Sandy. We performed a characterization analysis, to understand the temporal, social reputation and influence patterns for the spread of fake images. Eighty-six percent of tweets spreading the fake images were retweets, hence very few were original tweets. Our results showed that top thirty users out of 10,215 users (0.3%) resulted in 90% of the retweets of fake images; also network links such as follower relationships of Twitter, contributed very less (only 11%) to the spread of these fake photos URLs. Next, we used classification models, to distinguish fake images from real images of Hurricane Sandy. Best results were obtained from Decision Tree classifier, we got 97% accuracy in predicting fake images from real. Also, tweet based features were very effective in distinguishing fake images tweets from real, while the performance of user based features was very poor. Our results, showed that, automated techniques can be used in identifying real images from fake images posted on Twitter.

The last sentence is the most important: “Our results, showed that, automated techniques can be used in identifying real images from fake images posted on Twitter.” Hopefully, those automated approaches will be available to use quickly and intuitively without needing to know how to write an algorithm on the fly. There are people working with that goal in mind. See this great post “Automatically Extracting Disaster-Relevant Information from Social Media” by Patrick Meier–where he describes his efforts  “to develop open source and freely available next generation humanitarian technologies to better manage Big (Crisis) Data.” A software solution is on the horizon.

Why do people post false information? That interesting psychological question was not addressed in this study. Maybe people think an image of a shark swimming the street is funny; maybe they are out for a minute or more of fame.  I, for one, am increasingly leery to ReTweet any photo when an event is unfolding unless I see it on several sources (e.g. on Twitter and also streamed live from a “traditional” local news station). Tell me, how comfortable do you have to be with a source before you hit “ReTweet?”

Maryland Emergency Management Agency Plans for #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Maryland Emergency Management Agency

Maryland Emergency Management Agency (Photo credit: Maryland National Guard)

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency (@MDMEMA on Twitter)  has recently taken their social media communication’s strategy to new heights–even incorporating a module about the tools into their Public Information Officer training.

I had the opportunity to meet the MEMA  Social Media Coordinator, Kasey Parr, when we both served on a panel at the Social Media Week in Washington DC (a big thank you to Michael Clarke of International Media Solutions for organizing our session). I  asked Kasey in a written follow up for a little more detail about their social media plans and current processes. Below is the result of the Q&A with both Kasey and Ed McDonough,  the MEMA PIO.

Q1. What type of Social Media content is included in the PIO training?

A1: Kasey: The first training we conducted on “Social Media in the JIC” was right before Hurricane Sandy, forcing me to cut down on my slides because of time constraints on Ed and myself. The presentation given before Hurricane Sandy included:

  • Why do we use social media during emergencies?
  • What are the benefits?- This will now include a case study of the Derecho/Hurricane Sandy
  • Our level of engagement/How we use SM
  • VOST concept and how we can create a model with MD social media managers
  • Procedures during an event- 12 hour shift roles and responsibilities
  • Monitoring/responding (what it is, how we do it, etc)-

A1: Ed — I would add that we have been teaching about the use of social media as part of our instruction of FEMA‘s Basic PIO (G290) and JIC/JIS (G291) training for several years. We discuss the various platforms for SM, how to get buy in from supervisors and/or elected officials, stress the differences and similarities between SM and the traditional media, and emphasize that it is a two-way information flow that also can help operations folks with tactical decisions.  (You may be familiar with some of the ways Bill Humphries of LAFD has used Twitter to gain operational information.)

Maryland Emergency Management Agency

Maryland Emergency Management Agency (Photo credit: Maryland National Guard)

Q2. How is SM incorporated into “normal” communications and messaging processes?
A2: Ed — During our “sunny day” periods, we regularly use social media to engage the public about preparedness information, regularly monitor Facebook and twitter for information about weather, traffic and other information in and around Maryland and from emergency management agencies around the country. Unlike traditional media, where we are usually just pushing out information, we use social media to actually engage the public with contests and such to get immediate feedback. We also are in the process of making sure that our social media policies are incorporated into our public information SOPs, so any state public information officer working in our Joint Information Center will understand the role of social media in emergency management.

Q3.  Do you talk (in your training) specifically about the transfer of the intelligence gathered from monitoring social networks to decision-makers? 
A3: Kasey–We do address social media monitoring in our training. As a part of the procedures in the JIC the roles and responsibilities of the monitor are outlined. These responsibilities include alerting the team of any relevant trends that may need to be addressed and by whom these issues need to be addressed according to the urgency of the matter. Some issues can be easily solved with the PIO, relevant state agency reps, or they [may] require the attention of the Senior Policy Group.

Depending on the nature of the information that has come through, we may need to get the Governor to address it in his next press briefing, have the PIO construct a press release, or create a social media messaging strategy centered on the intelligence or trend to eliminate confusion. After Hurricane Sandy, we walked away with a lot of lessons learned as far as media monitoring is concerned. In my opinion, the social media monitor has the most important role during a disaster. This is one part of our social media program that I would like to build out for a disaster or emergency situation.

A3: Ed — I would add that we are exploring the use of crowdsourcing programs that could work in conjunction with our GIS staff to give operational staff in the state EOC better situational awareness during an activation. This will become even more important for counties and cities, as they are on the front lines of response.

Thank you so much Ed and Kasey! Let me know what types of questions you might have for them or other agencies.

Observations on Hurricane Sandy and Disaster Networks

Hurricane Sandy: 10/30/2012

Hurricane Sandy: 10/30/2012 (Photo credit: ccho)

Guest Post by: Rakesh Bharania

Rakesh Bharania is an engineer with Cisco Tactical Operations (http://t.co/bYsKdQG). The opinions in this article do not represent Cisco)

My team and I recently returned from a deployment in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy where we worked to support public safety and disaster relief NGOs in the states of New York and New Jersey.  This storm, regardless of what you want to call it (“Superstorm” seemed to be a popular moniker in the media, since the storm technically wasn’t a hurricane when it made landfall) seemed to usher in a whole new wave of technology in disaster response, and I think it’s worth trying to capture a few observations while the memories are still fresh and the after-action-reports are yet to be written.  So, a standard disclaimer applies:  this is really my own opinion, and not those of my teammates, or my employer.

Debris in the streets of the Port-au-Prince ne...

But let’s rewind a little bit:  the real coming-out party for disaster networks, crowdsourced information and so on (“Disaster ICT”) was the January 2010 Haiti earthquake.  Since the need was so urgent, and more importantly, there was nobody to say “no,” many new applications and technology architectures got their trial by fire in Haiti – it really was a real-life test lab for crowdsourcing, crisismapping, and hastily formed networks to a scale thereto unseen.  But I think the experience of Haiti also had set up unreasonable expectations in the nascent disaster technology community:  since so many people came to Disaster ICT as part of the Haiti response, the implicit assumption in many of their minds was that any future disaster was going to look like Haiti.  But subsequent disasters in the United States and around the world has proved what I thought initially: Haiti was always the exception, rather than the rule regarding how disasters were responded to.

So given that you couldn’t just “cowboy it” like you did in Haiti, what was interesting and different about technology during the Hurricane Sandy response?

1.  Empowerment.  From the Occupy Sandy movement to Burners Without Borders to any number of tech NGOs on the ground, communications technology and specifically social media allowed groups to coordinate among themselves, engage those in need, and solicit donors in a near-realtime basis.   We’d seen some of this before, of course, but the scale of this was quite impressive.  The downside is that some of these organizations were relatively inexperienced with the deployment and support of emergency technology and unfortunately became more of a hindrance than a help to the overall response effort.

2.  Significant deployment of Ka-Band VSATs.  For the first time, I started to see a number of satellite deployments that were based on the Ka-band, as opposed to the more widely deployed Ku-band.  The advantage of the Ka systems is that their bandwidths are higher (I saw systems that were able to get 10-15 MBps download speed) … but the open question we had was how stable were these systems going to be when it rained?  Ka-band satellite data services are more suscepti ble to “rain fade”, which is attenuation that occurs due to rain or snow.  Remember that a significant Nor’easter hit the same area Sandy did about a week after the latter storm rolled through.  Disaster responders will no doubt be discussing the merits of the higher bandwidth Ka-band compared to the lower bandwidth but more reliable Ku-band in the coming months.

3.  The rise of 4G LTE.  Yes, there were outages of the cellular telephone network and we saw crews from Verizon and other wireless carriers working feverishly to restore service to areas that had been knocked out.  But while we were working in Coney Island, we noticed that while the area had had no power since the storm struck, there was a very strong Verizon LTE network that was operational, and we would get up to 20 Mbps download, 7 Mbps upload speeds on average.  That was more than enough for us to move public safety agencies to – and the VSATs we had just deployed were rapidly decommissioned in favor of LTE-based solutions that were cheaper, had less latency, and provided more bandwidth.  While I can’t say our subjective experience was the same across the disaster area, I think we proved a valuable new tool in our disaster toolbox and will be happy to take it out again in future emergencies where it makes sense.

Rakesh deploying the VSAT in Coney Island.

4.  Video really does change everything.  I know that the social media experts are looking at how Instagram was the breakout sensation of the Sandy response, and maybe in the crowdsourced community, that remains true.  (I’ll spare you a discussion about how Instagram’s “creative manipulations” actually make it less useful for emergencies for another time).  However, we had one example of where a public safety problem was emerging and leadership at the emergency operations center had no understanding of the reality on the ground and therefore the right resources were not being assigned.   We put cameras on the problem, shared the video via WebEx and once the commanders could actually see the problem, things were fixed within fifteen minutes.  I think the future for video in emergency response, especially with the availability of higher bandwidth links looks very very good.

5.  Tech For All:  During Hurricane Katrina, I could see the evolution of technology underway (and this was in an age before smartphones!) where tech started off as something for headquarters-level leadership.  The second phase of this evolution was getting tech into the hands of responders in the field.  I would argue that we are largely in the middle of this phase of the transition.   The last phase, emerging and where we saw a lot of progress during Sandy, was in getting tech into the hands of the survivors of the disaster so that they could communicate with friends and loved ones, apply for disaster assistance, etc.

Wait, I’m kinda lying about the linear progression of this sequence.  Yes, we have technology largely at the headquarters/EOC level.  And we are working on the second part – getting tech into the hands of the responders.  But the truth is that the last part – technology in the hands of the disaster public, already exists.  The growth of mobile technology, smartphones and tablets and the whole Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) has largely empowered those communities that have access to those technologies.   This is something I didn’t see in 2005 – the “consumerization” of technology has empowered disaster survivors in a really meaningful way.  We as the emergency response community do not have to figure out how to get endpoints into the hands of disaster survivors – BYOD has taken care of that for us.  What we need to sometimes solve for is how to get them connectivity – a different problem.   It’s really Bring Your Own Device to the Disaster (BYODD). We still have to be mindful that this isn’t universal, and that communities with poorer access to technology and technology literacy might still need a hand … but Sandy hit a very tech-savvy population for the most part, with modern communications and technology readily available.

Yes, there were a number of challenges on the ground.  These, in no particular order, were the ones I saw.   None of them are insurmountable, and in many cases they’re to be expected considering this whole area is relatively new and certainly evolving at a ridiculous rate.  We’ll get there, but it’d be nice if the community would have some further discussions around the following…

1.  Sustainability.  It’s one thing to deploy the latest tech toys in an emergency, but once you turn up the service (and sometimes that’s hard enough), relatively few organizations had any plans for supporting moves/adds/changes and were poorly equipped in gear and knowledge to sustain and support the things they’d deployed.  Expert techs may be deployed for a limited amount of time – and then they go home …. what happens if something breaks at that point?   Sometimes it is better to not deploy technology in the first place, than it is to deploy tech that can’t be supported or sustained over the duration.

2.  Stop using FEMA’s name in vain!  Several tech NGOs came to us looking for support on various projects, and a few would invariably name-drop “so-and-so at FEMA wants to see this happen…”  If that’s true, show me the contract!  Show me the accountability!  As a tech company, we want to help, but we need to prioritize where we help.  It’s basic triage. This kind of noise only makes our decision-making harder.  And it creates the impression that FEMA itself is clueless (left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing) – which isn’t actually warranted by the situation.  Don’t degrade your customer’s name and goodwill in order to enhance your own.

3.  Coordinate On The Ground.  If you are deploying a technology project, the coordinator for that project really needs to be on the ground and have “ground truth” about the need and the deployment.  I saw several projects running astray because the primary coordinator was remote, and often there was a gap between what that person was telling us vs what the members of the project were telling us on the ground.

4.  Wearing Different Hats is OK, But Be Clear About Which Hat You’re Wearing.  There are only a few groups that do “disaster tech”, and it is not uncommon for them to collaborate with each other on larger efforts, or to act in concert with a governmental or other body.  But it is vitally important to be clear which project or organization you’re affiliated with on a given project. If a group comes to me and asks for equipment and I give them equipment, I need to be clear that when two days later they’re asking for the same stuff again that it’s for a different project or a different context.  Or worse yet, if work with two different groups on what appears to be the same project, but the groups themselves are approaching us independently of one another…

The response to Sandy shows that Internet communications is increasingly important for responder-to-responder, responder-to-public, and public-to-public communications.  The rate of technology change is increasing, with the average mobile device (smartphone or tablet) being replaced about once every 16 months or so.  So it’s important to plan for technology response using an all-hazards, all-methods approach that accommodates the fact that the technology, device, communications method, or application may change from day to day, or incident to incident.  Technology in the Sandy response was largely successful, and learning from our experiences there will help set us all up for future success on the next disaster (and there is always a next one!)

I want to end this note with two points:  firstly, “communications” are always about the message and never about the medium that message travels in.  It is too easy for us as technologists to become enamored of our own technology, and miss opportunities to do it better, faster or cheaper.  Remember that communicators, in and of themselves, have never saved a single life or restored a single community to health.  Responders on the ground, working one-on-one with the survivors do that.   And unless our fancy toys and blinking lights facilitates meaningful action on the ground, it’s just noise.  Any “disaster tech” that doesn’t influence the reality on the ground is just trivia.  Think about a brilliant, beautiful crisismap that is put together by lots of volunteers and is used by exactly nobody on the ground, for example.

My last point is this: even though we are technology first responders, and our chosen method of responding to the crisis is digital, we can never allow ourselves to forget that these are human emergencies that we are engaged in, not technological ones.  We must lead with the basic human traits of compassion and empathy with regards to our fellow responders and the communities we are all trying to serve.  Sometimes a hug delivered at the right moment is worth more than all the routers and switches in your truck.

Thanks to Rakesh for allowing me to share this with my readers! 

Recovers.Org Reflects on their Hurricane Sandy Effort

Caitria O’Neill of Recovers.org passed this information along to me detailing their efforts during Hurricane Sandy. Recovers.org defines themselves as an organization that “…helps towns organize disaster recovery with mobile and web-based technology.”  The statistics presented below are as of November 10, 2012.  I like her conclusions so much I’m going to put them first:

This experience, more than any other in our history, has convinced me of the need for this type of platform. We need coordination between government, nonprofit and grassroots efforts. We need fewer forms, smarter tools, and cleaner data. We need simple, accessible information BEFORE a disaster, letting ordinary people know how to get involved in a safe, efficient manner.

Guest Post by: Caitria O’Neill

Here’s a check in from the team at Recovers.org. We had a whirlwind week after Hurricane Sandy, launching software for four neighborhoods in the city. This is an update from the software on the front line. 

Three successes:

1.) We bridged the interest/aid gap: In the first week, we were able to database over 23,000 skilled volunteers and item donors. These resources are now meeting needs. 

Reported needs are steadily increasing as more and more residents return home and assess the damage. While these volunteers could not all be used in the immediate aftermath, they are needed more than ever now.1.) We bridged the gap: In the first week, we were able to database over 23,000 skilled volunteers and item donors.

Google Search “Volunteer Sandy”
Recovers.org site traffic

Local organizations in impacted areas did not have the capacity to do this in the first week. Thanks to our site. We’ve taken the peak of interest in the disaster, and given it to them for long-term recovery. These organizers have already met over 100 needs reported through the site, with more coming in daily. Many more needs were met through posting public calls for volunteers on the front page of the site.

Compare the graphs for the Google search “Volunteer Hurricane Sandy” and a graph of our site traffic in the same time. Local churches and nonprofits operating in the deadzone could not translate this interest into aid in real time. We did – and effectively translated these web searches by motivated volunteers into a database record of skills and items that local churches and nonprofits can continue to leverage far into the future.

2.) The community owned their own recovery: While our tool kit contributed greatly to the initial capacity, this effort was completely owned and operated by local organizers on the ground. This wasn’t Recovers.org riding in on a white horse, this was application of a tool kit, by neighborhoods that needed it.

In NYC, we launched sites for the Lower East Side,  Red Hook, Astoria and Staten Island in partnership with the burgeoning Occupy Sandy movement. Our understanding was that each of these sites belonged to the communities they were named for, would remain there long-term, but that the people providing aid quickly should have the means to do so. Occupy Sandy was able to jumpstart recovery across the city – moving masses of people and goods from where they showed up to where they were needed most.

Now, we are seeing more and more community leaders and local organizations begin to take ownership of these tools. Pet shelters seeking pet-specific skills in volunteers. Local nonprofits looking for translators. Organizations with remote volunteers who want to help by matching needs and aid as administrators. Know any? Have them email support@recovers.org.

3.) We’ve learned: I’m not sure we were ready for Hurricane Sandy – but we now know we can handle a landscape scale disaster in the largest city in the US. We’ve also learned exactly how hard this is.

It is imperative that these systems be implemented BEFORE a disaster. Trying to reach and train administrators in a dead-zone, to teach them how to use an unfamiliar system during a disaster is unworkable. Here, it only worked through blood, sweat, tears, and dedicated volunteers. We were unable to provide additional sites for areas like Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Lindenhurst NY that also sustained damage.

We also learned a great deal about the way our tools are seen and used in the absence of training. We’ve built a long list of changes to implement, and have been responding to feedback in real time to make the site easier to use. Keep it coming.

Next Steps: 

This experience, more than any other in our history, has convinced me of the need for this type of platform. We need coordination between government, nonprofit and grassroots efforts. We need fewer forms, smarter tools, and cleaner data. We need simple, accessible information BEFORE a disaster, letting ordinary people know how to get involved in a safe, efficient manner.

Update: This organization was featured on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/16/recoversorg-founders-buil_n_2143642.html

Five SMEM Observations and Recommendations From Hurricane Sandy

Post by: Kim Stephens

The documentation of social media’s use and impact during Hurricane Sandy has already begun. Patrice Cloutier wrote a great summary post “10 reasons why there’ll now be a before Sandy and post-Sandy in SMEM,” which is an excellent starting point. Not only are his 10 reasons dead-on, but he also links to quite a few articles about Sandy written by others in the social media and emergency management community. I have also been mulling over what occurred.  Below I’ve have my top five observations/lessons learned and some humble recommendations for local first response organizations. Spoiler alert: all the recommendation relate to planning.

1. Observation: Citizens will use social media to ask for emergency assistance during large-scale disasters. I often tell Emergency Management organizations not to be too concerned about citizens posting 911-type “calls” of assistance to their Facebook page or Twitter account. From my perspective this is not something you see very often. However, there is one huge caveat: if people can’t get through to 911 they will ask for assistance anywhere they think their voice will be heard–especially during a major crisis event. This exact scenario happened to the New York Fire Department, specifically the Twitter account @FDNY.  (See also the CNN story about @FDNY.)

It should be noted that time and again the woman managing the account reminded people to call 911. Nonetheless, she did pass the information on to dispatch and told people as much, versus abruptly dismissing distressed citizens.

What lessons can other emergency management or response organizations learn from this example:

  1. Whomever is interacting with the public needs to be able to handle pressure well–training and/or experience is necessary.
  2. Social media managers need to be aware of what to do if people ask for assistance and, if need be, should be empowered to pass along that information.
  3. A close connection from the social media manager to Ops is required– they need to have a good understanding of the situation in order to answer questions (see also the story about @ConEdison). This, in turn, will keep the call volume to 911 down–freeing up capacity for true emergency calls. The @FDNY account manager was well informed and when she didn’t know the answer she simply stated: “I’ll find out.”

Recommendation: Organizations should not assume that the statement on their Facebook and Twitter accounts “Please do not post the need for emergency assistance to this site. Call 911” will stop this from happening during a large-scale crisis. Standard operating procedures should be written for how this will be handled and the SOPs should be tested in exercises.

2. Observation: People want hyper-local information.

Impacted citizens are not interested in what is happening in the next State or even the next town–they want to know what roads they can use to get home, where they can buy milk and ice or get a hot meal, and when the power will be back on. This kind of content is best delivered by the local community for the local community. However, once your public safety organization starts posting that kind of vital “hyper-local” content it can result in popularity (as many as 800 new likes in one day can be expected during an event). A consequence of this new-found popularity:  maintenance.

Quite a few small-community emergency management organizations only have one person dedicated to posting content to social media.  This is usually more than enough when there isn’t a major crisis, however,  large-scale events require ’round-the-clock staffing.

Recommendation: Organizations need to build capacity for participating in social networks. If it is determined that they cannot provide their own back-up support in order to staff a social media “desk” for 18-24 hours, then they should plan ahead for assistance. For example, the emergency management organization in Suffolk County, NY developed a relationship with social media volunteers, known as “Virtual Operations Support Teams,”  before this disaster. This was due to the persistence and excellent leadership of one of their community members,  JoAnna Lane (@Joannalane). But even if your community doesn’t have a “Jo” to get the ball rolling,  the concept of a VOST is one every emergency management organization should explore.

3. Observation: Citizens WILL BE viewing your content on mobile devices. I was also an impacted citizen. Once we lost power I turned to my smart phone for information and what I found was a little frustrating. (I’m using my own local county as an example, but I’m sure they are not alone.) One of the great things about social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, is that they are designed to be viewed on smart phones, your local emergency management website, however, is probably NOT.  Therefore, organizations should take advantage of these mobile-ready sites and post as much information as possible to them (this does not mean you can’t also place the same information on your website). Furthermore, Facebook now allows for posts that are quite long, so listing road closures, for example, could easily be accomplished either as an update or as a “Note.” Furthermore, posting content that requires a lot of bandwidth to view should also be avoided.

Recommendation: Standard “social media” operating procedures should take into account the devices people will be using, especially during power outages. Effort should be made to plan for how to provide as much information as possible in small “digestible” bite sizes.

Photo Credit: BioLiteStove.com

4. Observation:  People need to be able to charge their phones! The fact that emergency response organizations can now provide information directly to citizens via their cell phones is a great new reality…but those phones have to have power. Images of NYer’s going to great lengths charge their cell phones are everywhere. I even read something yesterday on the Canadian Red Cross blog about how people were charging their phones with a jerry-rigged system based on fire. The author stated: “BioLite‘s CampStoves use the fire from burning wood to charge mobile devices and cook at the same time.” The need to charge phones is simple: information is the vital to survival and recovery.

Recommendation: All communities (large or small) should plan for how they will help citizens get information via mobile devices. This might mean figuring out how to set up charging stations in shelters or other central locations (possibly in partnership with the private sector) as well as how to provide free wifi.

5. Observation: Social Media works during disasters. As Patrice Cloutier stated:

“Many governments, at all levels, used social media to communicate with their constituents before, during and after the passage of Sandy. Again, social networks (particularly Twitter) proved to be effective emergency information tools.”

I’ve heard the argument for years from various emergency response officials that they do not think social media is important because it won’t “work” during a large-scale disaster. They base this on the notion that during a catastrophic event all communication systems will fail. It might be true that someday we may experience a disaster of catastrophic proportions where every system fails, everywhere. What is more likely, though, is the occurrence of events such Sandy. Yes, there were some system failures, but cellular networks, once again, proved to be resilient.  By choosing not to plan for the use of  social media or text communications based on this “catastrophic” assumption seems to be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Recommendation: Emergency management and response organizations should plan for the use of multiple communication tools to reach the public before, during and after disasters.

Of course these are broad-based observations that  in no-way address every aspect of social media’s use, or problems of use, during Sandy, specifically I did not delve into the open-data or mapping debate. I’m sure we will all be dissecting this event for months to come. If you have an interesting observation, please let me know.