Tag Archives: Kim Stephens

#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.

Social Media use by Emergency Managers: Survey Says!

Post by: Kim Stephens

photo credit: Rosaura Ochoa via photopin cc

photo credit: Rosaura Ochoa via photopin cc

CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization,  in conjunction with the National Emergency Management Association, released the results of their survey of emergency management organizations about the use of social media. You can download the report here. The CNA website provides a description of why they felt a survey was important:

To date, much of the data on social media and emergency management is limited to anecdotal accounts or case studies. Thus, CNA, in partnership with the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), funded the development and nationwide distribution of a 56-question survey to state, county, and local emergency management and response agencies in late 2012 to answer questions about social media use in emergency management. By taking a survey approach, we were able to provide a broader, complementary perspective to existing anecdotes and case studies. This report provides the key results of that survey.*

They posed the following questions:

  • How knowledgeable are emergency management agencies regarding social media?
  • Do emergency management agencies use social media? What goals do they have for social media?
  • What are current capabilities for using social media?

  • Do emergency management agencies have experience using social media in real-world events?
  • Are agencies prepared to conduct social media operations in large-scale events?

  • What are emergency managers’ attitudes toward social media?
  • What are the main challenges to social media use by emergency management agencies? What can the Federal Government do to facilitate its use?


Although the results of the survey do mesh with expectations, they did uncover a few nice surprises. For instance, the extent of adoption is higher than I would have thought: “Of those surveyed, all state emergency management agencies use social media in some capacity, as do 68 percent of county emergency management agencies and 85 percent of local response agencies.”

Not surprisingly, given the relatively recent acceptance of social media for crisis communications, they found that the emergency management community use these tools in a fairly ad hoc fashion–processes and procedures lag behind adoption. Furthermore, information found on social networks is also less trusted than “traditional media.” Most agencies do not have a person dedicated to updating and monitoring social media. During large-scale disaster events, this lack of dedicated personnel severely restricts the ability of organizations to glean information from users. “Less than one-quarter of state agencies responding, and even fewer county and local agencies, indicated that their data collection and analysis capabilities could sufficiently scale for large events.” The lack of personnel, however, does not seem to impact the ability for these organization to post status updates during events.

My favorite question–what can the feds do for you–also had an unsurprising response: send money. Although to be fair–training, guidance and standards were also mentioned.

Let me know–would you have answered the survey differently? Are you surprised by the results?

Report was written by Yee San Su • Clarence Wardell III • Zoë Thorkildsen

Researchers Review Boston Bombing Social Media Activity

Post by: Kim Stephens

800px-2013_Boston_Marathon_aftermath_peopleProject HEROIC–which stands for Hazards, Emergency Response, and Online Informal Communications (see footnote)–took a close look at the online activity of official organizations during the recent domestic terrorist event in Boston and the ensuing suspect chase–that seemed like a marathon in itself.  They released a report today (May 10) titled “Following the Bombing” which I have summarize below.

Their Methodology and Findings

In order to understand  what types of information was provided to the public and how broadly it was distributed, the project team reviewed 29 different government agency or related Twitter accounts. The first question might be: why only Twitter? Researchers like Twitter–the data is easy to grab and analyze.

The project team reviewed two main items: 1. Rate of posting by the selected organizations and elected officials;  and 2. The percent change in followers  (spoiler alert: Boston PD had a 500% increase and the Boston PD PIO Cheryl Fiandaca had a 2291% increase).  The rate that these organizations posted was tied to their increase in followers, which is no surprise, however, there was a notable exception–Boston Fire Department.

Boston FD gained a 25% increase in followers without posting once the day of the attack. Their absence  was not lost on the Twittersphere, and the Boston FD even felt it necessary to defend their decision the next day.  They Tweeted that they deliberately did not post any Tweets from the scene because it is their policy not to “…show any injured person or discuss our treatment.” Quite a few people, however, thought their decision was unfortunate; at a minimum they could have simply ReTweeted the Boston PD account. As the researchers pointed out:  “…organizations that have increased their network size must provide information of value and to be aware that the public is watching.” Honestly, its about trust. People who follow official accounts do so because they know they can trust the content. The public followers also have a notion that they will provided information in timely manner-especially during incidents such as this one where everyone was looking for any tidbit  they could find in order to make sense out of the chaos.  It is not a stretch to see why people were upset.

Read the whole report here. I like some of their questions they pose at the end:  What can organizations do to ensure their newfound followers stick around? and What educational preparedness-type information should organizations provide to take advantage of the narrow window of attention they have? Let me know your thoughts.

Footnote: “Project HEROIC is a collaborative, NSF funded effort by researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the University of California-Irvine to better understand the dynamics of informal online communication in response to extreme events. Through a combination of data collection and modeling of conversation dynamics, the project team aims to understand the relationship between hazard events, informal communication and emergency response.” (via: http://heroicproject.org/)

Using YouTube to Communicate Preparedness Messages

Post by: Kim Stephens

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

When communicating life safety and preparedness information online, it is really important to remember what retailers have already learned: video sells your message much better than text. The article “10 Web Video Stastics You Need to Know” details some interesting trends in how people are consuming web-based and mobile content. Five key points:

  1.  Visitors who view video stay two minutes longer on average (Comscore)
  2.  59% of senior executives prefer to watch video instead of reading text. (Forbes)
  3.  50% of smartphone users watch web video on their mobile device. (Google Blog)
  4. Video and other multi-media product viewing options were rated more effective than any other site initiatives in an Adobe survey of almost 2,000 interactive marketers. (Adobe)
  5. Video in email marketing has been shown to increase click-through rates by over 96% (Implix Email Marketing Trends Survey)

What does that mean for the public sector? It means that we need to be more creative in content production and distribution. This, of course, is already happening. A simple search on YouTube for “emergency preparedness” yields 17,900 results. The content of these preparedness videos, however, does not always compel viewership. To be frank, if your video is lame, no one is going to watch it. Content is king–even with video.

One of the best videos I’ve seen to date is the recent Department of Homeland Security grant funded project produced by the city of Houston, titled: Run, Hide, Fight, which describes what citizens should do in the event of an active shooter in an office building (or any building). The release, or at least circulation, was very timely–just after the movie theatre shooting in Colorado. The best thing about the video is that the viewer feels genuine concern about the actors. I watched the entire 5:55 minutes to see who survived.

I did find the content, however, to miss the mark in some respects: they completely forget people with access and functional needs, both in terms of production and distribution. The video is not captioned nor is there a script readily available, and furthermore, they depict every person in the video as young and able-bodied. What about a person that does not hear that a shooting is happening in the building? What about a person that is in a wheelchair and therefore can’t run, hide, or fight easily?  They also disabled the comment section on the YouTube platform, which is unfortunate, in my opinion. How else will they learn what people thought about the content?  Nonetheless, the video is compelling. It made me consider my own exit and/or hide plan.

Does your agency have any videos ready for production? Let me know!

Could Social Media Save Your EM Job?

Post by: Kim Stephens

It is no secret that budget cuts have impacted the emergency management community directly, particularly the position of EM Director. Some community leaders view the EM’s job as dispensable, one that can be filled by the Fire Chief or by a very limited part-time person or volunteer. Isn’t the EM job only necessary in a “disaster”? However, I believe that by using social networking tools to provide a continuous stream of preparedness and crisis communications, EMs can demonstrate the value of  their organization to the community every day. These tools also help EMs build relationships with community members that was never possible with traditional websites. This comes in handy when the time comes for the budget ax. I was very happy today to see a direct example of this from Laclede County, Missouri Office of Emergency Management.

I love this post to their Facebook page, they tell the public how much of the overall budget their office represents, only 1.27%, and request people to “weigh in” on the upcoming hearing.

Getting people to support your office, of course, depends on how well received you are in your community. But, gaining  support for emergency services from people that might not ever personally need your direct assistance can be challenging. By using social media, however, you can connect to community members and provide relevant advise people can heed in their daily lives.  The word “relevance” is key. If you are not relevant in someone’s life then they will not think twice about removing your service from their list of items they have to pay for on the tax bill. Laclede OEM appears to do a great job getting that relevant content to their followers and do have a healthy fan base.

Good luck Laclede! Let us all know how it goes on the 11th!