Tag Archives: Situation awareness

Top #SMEM Challenges for 2013: I Don’t Have Time!

ESA/ESOC goes Social Media _10

Post by: Kim Stephens

Patrice Cloutier, James Garrow and I have colluded a bit to reflect on SMEM in 2012: James is writing up his top five social media lessons learned during the year; Patrice is taking note of the SMEM great events of 2012 (including disaster events where social media played a pivotal role in providing both situational awareness to first responders as well as vital information to the public); and my self-assigned task is to write about the challenges we face in the year to come. The three of us are equally passionate about  social media, and share the mindset evident in statement from Garrow’s post “Top 5 SMEM Lessons: The Public Uses Social Media”

The public has integrated social media into their lives. The fruits of that integration are demonstrated during every disaster… Ignoring the state of the world is, for an emergency manager, tantamount to malfeasance. Our greatest lesson learned this year is that we can no longer ignore social media or keep it out of our planning.

Nonetheless, I think there is a “but.” Although I agree that emergency managers should no longer ignore social media, there are many challenges that come with getting emergency management professionals proficient with these tools. In this and subsequent posts I will outline some of these challenges and link them to emerging solutions. (I have adapted some of the post below from something I wrote for Western  Regional Homeland Security Council in Massachusetts.)

Challenge #1: “I don’t have time.”

The Passage of Time

The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

Although there are an increasing number of emergency managers swimming in the social media tide, some folks remain firmly on the beach. They might even know how to swim (for instance use Facebook for personal reasons) but are reluctant to jump in wearing their emergency management  suit.  The explanation these professionals often give is that they don’t have time. Although the statement “I don’t have time” could be code for “I don’t think this is important”  it also could mean a multitude other things. For instance, I don’t have time…

  •  to devote to learn the tools;
  •  to devote to developing a meaningful social presence;
  •  to update social networks during a crisis;
  • to answer all of the questions from the public posted to our pages.

These folks also understand that if they build a presence on social media people will come to these sites during an event and expect timely content. This is not a comforting thought. They know that will have set up an expectation for information dissemination that they cannot meet.

Honestly, I completely understand the predicament. Although some organizations have a full-time staff person devoted to social media, most do not. Only bigger cities have a full-time PIO and increasingly, small communities don’t even have a full-time Emergency Manager. Often these part-time EMs are dual hatted, so if they had a couple of hours a week to write and post a few preparedness tips to their Twitter account and Facebook page, during a crisis, they might literally be the same person on the other end of the fire-hose.

Help! Can I Outsource this?

Supplementing staff during a crisis is not new; it is new, however, in terms of social media. The idea of handing over the reigns of these accounts is very difficult concept for some. Who would you trust to be the voice of your organization?  Although this concept  may initially seem like a stretch–I would never allow someone else to be our voice!–there is a perfect example of how outsourcing can work: Incident Management Teams. When an IMT comes into your community you do trust them to do what is required/asked.  However, this arrangement is not without strings attached–a  ”Delegation of Authority” agreement is signed between the two parties detailing expectations. Below is an excerpt from a sample DoA:

You have full authority and responsibility for managing incident operations within the framework of legal statute, current policy, and the broad direction provided in both your verbal and written briefing materials. You are accountable to me. A formal evaluation of your performance will be conducted prior to your departure. This formal evaluation may be followed up within sixty days after your departure once the Agency has had the opportunity to review accountability, claims, financial matters, and other items, which require time to evaluate.

Although IMTs often do include public information officers, it is not realistic to assume that communities will have the opportunity to use an IMT every time there is an incident. But even small, localized events can stretch resources and limit an organization’s ability to “deal” with social media. This is why the concept of a Virtual Operations Support Team is increasingly gaining in popularity. For just a bit of background, repeating content from previous posts, a VOST (a concept developed by Jeff Phillips) can be defined as a team that accomplishes some or all of the following:

  • Establishes a social media presence for an organization that previously did not use social networking tools to communicate with the public;
  • Monitors social media communications;
  • Handles matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as assisting with the management of donations or volunteers;
  • Follows social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicates issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective;
  • Identifies misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provides a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplifies the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or official social media accounts);
  • Compiles media coverage (traditional and non-traditional) by date;
  • Documents social media conversations.

Who serves on the VOST?

Unlike IMTs, VOSTs are not pre-formed, nationally trained teams. One current misperception is that the “VOST”  will swoop into your community after a disaster.  Although there are people who work on VOSTs for specific communities or organizations, those folks have been pre-identified by the community  (I cannot emphasize that enough).

In other words, if you are interested in having a group (or even just one person) ready help with social media after a disaster, you have to take responsibility to foster that relationship and come to a terms of agreement before the disaster. Communities have done this in several different ways (explained in more detail below). Some have turned to CERT members (e.g. Anaheim California’s Office of Emergency Management); others have tapped  savvy social media community members (e.g. Cecil County, Maryland); and still others, including the NYC Public Health Department, have developed a VOST from within their agency by training their own employees–e.g. people willing to add additional duties for the opportunity to do something unique during a disaster response.

Like an IMT, VOST members can supplement resources and potentially even bring in a new set of skills.

VOST Models 

From my perspective, three models have emerged for the use and structure of VOSTs. Interestingly, the model or category an organization falls into seems to be a reflection of the both the level of trust with VOST members as well as the level of trust and knowledge/comfort with social media in general. The models I have identified are

  1. External Support (Amplify and Monitor Only)
  2. Hybrid Support (Amplify, Monitor, and Respond on behalf of the organization, but with specific limits)
  3. Internal/Embedded (Full range of social media duties and support)

1. External VOST Support:

Organizations that are both new to social media and the concept of a “VOST” might consider using support from team members in a more conservative manner. In this model the following support might be provided:

  • Follow social media and traditional media trends and reports back to the organization what is being seen;
  • Communicate issues and concerns being expressed by the public (e.g. represents the citizen’s perspective);
  • Identify misinformation or angry postings that need to be corrected or dealt with;
  • Provide a supportive voice for the organization and its efforts;
  • Amplify the organization’s message by repeating content  (via personal and/or established community VOST social accounts).

Team members could provide this support from afar–in fact, getting this type of assistance from folks outside of your community might be a great option since they would be out of the impacted area and would therefore have power in their home, or office, etc. Remember, monitoring social media does not have to happen in your EOC.

  • But who? Team members could be emergency managers from the other side of the state,  for instance.
  • But how? It is important to note that with any of these models, communication between the team members and the organization is vital for success. For example, if the team identifies a potential issue that needs to be addressed quickly (e.g. people posting angry comments on Mayor’s Facebook page about conditions in the shelters) they need assurance that the customer/organization has seen this red flag.

2. Hybrid Support

In this model, the team does everything identified in the external support model, but also responds to questions from community members and posts content on behalf of the organization.  Unlike the model above, these individuals would be made administrators of those accounts. In this approach, however, there are specific limitations placed on the team members. For instance, they are allowed to post on behalf of the organization, but only information that has already been cleared by their organization’s PIO or posted on other official government accounts.

  • But who? I have seen this model used with CERT volunteers.
  • But how? Similar to the way 311 employees use pre-scripted responses to citizen’s questions, the social media volunteers are provided answers to frequently asked questions that they can type into the Facebook page, or post to the Twitter account. They would be responsible for monitoring these accounts and flagging any out-of-ordinary questions and obtaining quick answers: e.g. Is Elkton Road flooded?

3. Internal/Embedded

In this model, the VOST team leader  is given the full range of social media duties. This model is often utilized by small communities that do not have a full-time (or even part-time PIO) and the Agency’s staff person responsible for social media communication has many other duties during the response to a crisis or disaster.

  • But who? Often this type of arrangement is made with people very familiar with the organization and maybe even retired PIOs. The organization has an established, trusted relationship with the person or team members.
  • But how? In order to provide this type of support, it is often best to have the team, or a least the team leader, embedded at the Emergency Operations Center.

There are many examples of what VOST members have accomplished during the past two years. Click on the links below to see some of the social media pages they have built. Sorry for the extra-long post. I hope you have made it to the end! If you have any questions about this concept please let me know.









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:


#SMEM: Chatting about using Social Media for Situational Awareness

Post: By Kim Stephens

This is a summary of the weekly chat on the twitter platform using the hashtag #SMEMchat (Social Media for Emergency Management Chat). I was the host this week, and the topic was Social Media for Situational Awareness.

Using social media to provide the public with information (i.e., pushing info) seems to be increasingly gaining ground with the emergency management community, especially since each new crisis brings to our attention examples of how others are effectively using it in this capacity. However, monitoring social media to gain situational awareness (pulling info) is another prospect entirely.  We discussed some of the perceived and genuine problems with using social media for this purpose.

The first question was aimed at institutional challenges to adoption:

Q1: What is the biggest impediment for using Social Media to obtain “official” Situational Awareness data: technical, policy, emergency management culture, or resources?

It seemed the answer should be a mix of all of these challenges, which I guess it probably is, but most people seemed to think emergency management culture was the biggest barrier. James Hamilton stated: “Without a doubt, in circles I have been in at the State level, culture is the largest hurdle to adoption.”

Lack of resources was also mentioned as a concern, especially when it comes to processing information during a crisis. But, going back to culture, a recent article about citizens trying to persuade their local OEM to participate in just using social media to push information, reminded me of what a large hurdle this really is. The SouthHold Town Police Captain, Scott Flately stated that: “… he was not sure the additional work involved in using social media in emergency weather situations was worth it or not. Flately noted he has increased his efforts to notify news media of road closings, down trees and accidents during severe storms this winter.” As far as using social media to gain situational awareness he states: “The 911 system we have in place works.” During the chat people reminded me that 90% of the OEMs they talk to do not use social media at all.

Q2. The next question dealt with the concept of using “trusted agents,” similar to the National Weather Service’s use of trained weather spotters.  Specifically I asked: The National Weather Service uses trusted agents for weather spotting. Does anyone rely on social-media-trusted agents or crowdsourced data to gain situational awareness?

This question set off a debate about the NWS program, some indicated that the NWS specifically refused reports via social media, however, an experiment is ongoing in North Texas to do just that. (The pic on the left is crowdsourced data from the NWS). Kate Starbird, a Phd candidate from University of Colorado studying crisis informatics, made a great point that many people seized on: “If you look at larger trends rather than individual reports, then trustworthiness can emerge from consensus.”  This NWS map, illustrates her point. One “public” person reports 3″ of snow and then 5 miles away a trained weather spotter reports the same amount; the trustworthiness of the “public” person just increased. Furthermore, by taking lots of reports and aggregating them, a full story can emerge and outliers can be eliminated. As some said on the chat”the math works”, others indicated: “Data mining tools should help with trust by consensus.” Kate Starbird stated: There’s a layer model: collect, use tools to filter, use crowdsourcing to vet, use more tools to distribute.”

Another interesting thread of conversation emerged: How do you measure trust, particularly if you  are not using aggregation tools that apply mathematical models to weed out false reports? David Wild asked: “Is the fact that you follow someone on twitter a measure of trust in their report?” David answered his own question by stating that the NWS proved a few years ago that “quality from quantity is better than quality by selection.” (In other words, the truth will be the average). Hal Grieb recommended that the emergency management community should use the same individuals that the NWS uses as trained spotters.  James answered that trust could simply have to do with reference point. Also, chat participants indicated that information accompanied by a picture is hard to deny.

In terms of relying on information from individuals, I asked about using business partners as trusted agents. Glen Gilmore, a social media marketing guru, agreed by stating “trust is often local.” Mr.Gilmore went on to say “trust takes time; it’s not a matter of “following” , but of listening & sifting.”  People seemed to agree with this by stating the importance  of  building a social media presence before an event. Ms. Starbird wrote that in events, locals sometimes create new accounts to report. The “FireTracker” stated: “Public will trust established local, over newcomer “official”. One great point by @g_r_e_g was that social media can be combined with other information: “be sure to include other tools, too, like call volume, e-mail, media reports, not just social media.”

The notion that emergency managers need more data mining tools in order to establish trust by consensus seemed to receive a collective “YES!” There are only a couple of these tools currently being developed, Swiftriver, which I have mentioned on this blog, is one of the few.

The FireTracker also suggested, that in terms of organizational structure, that “As you establish Incident Command” and RIT, maybe establish a Social Media officer at the scene of the incident.” This would give you a trusted agent for sure!

Q3: Even though the discussion of tools for filtering social media had already been brought up, I specifically asked: What tools do you use/need to automate Social Media monitoring for Situational Awareness?

I know quite a few people in the emergency management community use tweetdeck and google real-time searches. Hal Grieb reminded us of a list of tools on one.forty.com. Tools that can integrate information that comes with a geo-tag were also mentioned as something to look forward to.

@g_r_e_g through some water on the party: “Automated monitoring is fine, but how is info analyzed especially in the Joint information center/Emergency ops center/ and Incident command system settings? Pictures/tweets are great, but then what?

Q4: The next question: Can volunteers be used to help sort thru comments and @ messages in ur EOC?  Is anyone using volunteers?

Alicia Johnson thought volunteers could be an option; and she also asked if local media could help curate information. Jeff Phillips, EM from New Mexico, indicated volunteers could be used and “they don’t even have to be IN the EOC.” Some agencies, however, are quite reluctant to open the door to volunteers to be used for the purpose of social media monitoring, especially those that are not comfortable with the medium in the first place.

Kate Starbird brought up how crowdsourcing was used to aggregate citizen reports on the Ushahidi platform. “Crowdmap for Chicago used volunteers–some trained some spontaneous to verify, map & route information during the recent blizzard”. But as a counter point, James stated “Big problem with crowdsourced situational awareness data is time and manpower to search/sort. Why apps are needed to automate.”

Hal Grieb stated: “Data mining is great but need more investment in web 3.0 and the semantic web together with geolocation apps.” Greg indicated that he was a fan of adding syntax and bringing WebEOC or other CMIS for tasking/posting (versus volunteers). But this doesn’t seem like a short-term solution since, as James indicated: “Current WebEOC Twitter interface lacks true tasking & movement.” Others indicated that they want mobile capabilities.

To add another option I asked if the concept of using mutual aid agreements to help with volume of data from Social Media  for Situational Awareness should be explored. The FireTracker stated “Yes, but need legal framework ironed out NOW with MOUs.” Greg stated that you can have agreements with farther flung agencies, particularly to mitigate against the possibility of large-regional events. I found this to be a very salient point by the FireTracker:

“Social Media resource typing and standardization would go a long way towards Mutual aid planning and IMHO so you know what you are getting. CyberCert would play into resource typing, as well as Public Information Officers listed in ROSS, Non-Governmental Organizations and SUV Social Media volunteers.”

One participant asked if anyone was worried about intentional misuse or misdirection? Kate Starbird indicated that they saw a bit of that in Haiti. “Haiti-relatives reported hearing from loved ones to get responder’s MT.” This took us back to the whole discussion of trusted sources and the concept that math aggregation tools could help alleviate this sort of problem. (Of note, this points out the difference between using social media to direct resources to individuals or to just gain over-arching situational awareness. Of course, 911 is used to direct help to individuals in the US, whereas in Haiti Social Media became 911 by default.) However, it was noted that we should “plan for disruptive tools” because data can be easily corrupted.

The last question dealt with Mayors & City Managers using Social Media to post updates from the scene, sometimes essentially  bypassing the emergency management structure (e.g. by directing resources to citizens that “tweet” for assistance”). Since this article is already quite long, to summarize, people thought that it would be impossible to tell them that they should not be doing this: “Nature of politics!”. These mayors do provide a valuable connection to the residents by “talking” with them through social media, but politically driven promises can create challenges with regard to “expectations management.”

Using Social Media to Gain Situational Awareness — It’s Time To Question Assumptions

Post by: Kim Stephens

Many have assumed that after a large-scale disaster event all communications would be silenced in the impacted areas.  Recent experience, however, has proved this assumption incorrect — first with Haiti (Jan 2010) and then in recent months in  Australia. In both cases, the cell towers proved to be more resilient than assumed.  Because social media platforms can be accessed on hand-held communication devices, survivors and public safety organizations have turned to these platforms as a way to keep the information flowing during and after a disaster.

Citizens in impacted areas don’t just receive information, but increasingly, they send out bits of data about what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling through these platforms. These data, if aggregated, can contribute to overall situational awareness.  We are really beginning to understand Brian Humphrey of LAFD’s phrase “every citizen is a sensor”, a take on the phrase every soldier is a sensor. But what now? Citizens, obviously, do not pass the information up through chains of command, nor do usually pass that information in any structured way. How do we filter, verify, aggregate and make sense of ALL THAT DATA?  As crisis mapper and PhD candidate Kate Starbird said in a recent interview: “Should it be the only source of information? Absolutely not. But if it’s there, why not use the information?” Also see this video of Craig Fugate, Director FEMA, talk about how important this is.

This is a really big topic so I have just tackled a small part of the issue in this post. I also have tried to include as many links as possible to articles that explore the topic in much greater depth. The point here is to try to aggregate some of these issues and questions for use in our discussion on the SMEMchat hashtag, which is scheduled to take place Friday, Feb. 3 at 1230. If you have other questions you’d like brought up, please post them to twitter on #SMEM or at the bottom of this post.

QUESTION #1: How do we gather  information from social media platforms?

(a.) One way to gather data: ask for it. The US Army Handbook on Social Media suggests that during an emergency “Organizations should encourage people on the scene to send information.” They go on to state that “No matter how information is submitted, the command site should promote this content when appropriate.”

(b.) Be a magnet. What I think we are seeing in Australia, is that the Queensland Police Service social media presence has created an avenue for people to provide information that can be more easily monitored by response personnel. They have done this both with their twitter account, by establishing and using hashtags that were widely adopted during the flood and the current cyclone, and by creating a robust facebook page. Just by reading through the comments on the QPS site, you get a sense of how people can provide situational awareness information directly to you. One person states: “Just gotten in contact with family in Kewarra and they have power, not to sure of damage but it wasn’t as bad as we first thought…”

One concern I’ve heard voiced from response organizations is privacy. However, if people are volunteering their information to your open and public site, they most likely understand it is not a private conversation. Another concern I’ve heard came from the QPS media team themselves, there is a LOT of information to sort through. This brings up the question:

Can/should emergency operation centers use volunteers to help sort through the data pouring in through their own social media sites?

(c.) Have trusted sources: Other emergency managers, Cheryl Bledsoe in particular, have noted the importance of  having a presence before an event, which helps create real trust with people online. During an event you can turn to these “trusted agents” as sources of information. (Hey @greatguy What are you seeing around the lake?).

Again, Jeff Phillips, aka @LosRanchosEM, provides a great example of this. Here in this screen shot of his twitter feed, you can see that he is retweeting information supplied by others. When asked about his practices in RTing Jeff states: “I do my best to verify “trust” before RT – not the same as saying only “official” sources. Sometimes I RT with a question mark.” I asked him if he includes that information in his official situational report, and he indicated that he does include verified information in his county’s sitrep.

QUESTION #2:  Can We Ask for the data, but in a structured format? Even in Australia, however, we have seen that being a magnet for information is really not enough. There is just too much information for response organizations to make sense of it all in a timely manner. Some of the posts on the QPS facebook page received over 1000 comments. There were thousands of tweets during and after the cyclone with the tag #TCYasi. Trying to sort through and make sense of all of that potential data is a real problem. (I say potential because a lot of comments are merely “thanks for the good work!”.)

What smart phone applications and other formats have been developed to help citizens report data in structured format?

(a.) For smaller-scale events, an example of an application that would make it easier for the public to send information in a more structured format is the application “See Click Fix” which is promoted for use in identifying non-emergency issues in neighborhoods. (Thanks to @UrbanAreaAlicia for pointing this out). As stated on their webpage, this application “allows anyone to report and track non-emergency issues anywhere in the world via the internet.” As the “click” implies, people are encouraged to send in photos of the problems.  If you are reminded of Ushahidi, I’ll get to that in a moment. But applications like this one might be worth exploring for use after a disaster, particularly for local government with limited resources.

(b.) The public can also be educated about how to structure information shared through social media platforms so that it can be integrated with other data feeds and placed on visualization platforms. One example of this is the National Weather Service’s new experiment called “Twitter Storm Reports” In their flyer they state: “You can now submit your significant weather observations to the NWS via twitter.” The two page flyer gives very specific information on how-to structure tweets, including a full description of how they should be written with or without geo-tagging.  One of the example tweets demonstrates the importance of including the person’s location if they do not have geo-tagging. “#wxreport WW 378 W. 156th Rd. Anthony, KS WW Wind Gusts estimated at 60 mph”.

(c.) This reminded me of the “Tweak the tweet”, an ongoing effort on the part of aforementioned Kate Starbird, a PhD student at the University of Colorado, to educate the public about how to better format tweets in order to”leverage twitter as a semi-formal communications channel”. The campaign also informs users on how to format tweets so that computers can aid in processing the information.

“This processing includes extracting location information, creating incident reports from tweets, and sorting these reports into different types of categories. The processed tweets can then be displayed on public web-pages in a variety of formats that allows users to see where different types of information has been reported.”

This is a very impressive endeavor that is starting to yield some great results. See this 3 page description here.

Correction: In my attempt to be brief it seems I left out some important information. I received an email from Jeannie A. Stamberger, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty,Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley, that sheds some additional light on how and why the tweak-the-tweet was created. Dr. Stamberger states:

I wanted to let you know that I co-created Tweak the Tweet with Kate Starbird at the Random Hacks of Kindness in November 2009; we have published on creating the idea together. At Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley Disaster Mangement Initiative we continue to work on Twitter use in disasters exploring further questions related to gathering accurate credible information from the crowd including just-in-time credibility building, use of social media in disaster drills which teach the public how to use information resources during a disaster, and we will be testing methods in May using Tweak the Tweet in amateur radio; amateur radio is the backbone of communication in disasters, yet the information is missing from the digital feeds currently being processed by the crowd to aid disaster management.

We are also working with local authorities to develop optimal “canned” alert messages to familiarize them with the in’s and out’s of how to get your message across. Others at CMU are working on identifying location of Tweets from colloquial language in content (see January publications) and comprehensive analysis of characteristics associated with re-Tweeting likelihood.

(d.) And Ushahidi (if you’ve never heard of Ushahidi watch this video) has an iPhone app as well. From the iTunes preview page: “Ushahidi is an open source platform for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.  The iPhone and iPad app synchronizes with any Ushahidi deployment allowing viewing and creation of incident reports on the go.”

The app supports loading of multiple deployments at one time, quick filtering through incident reports, exploring incident locations on the map, viewing incident photos, news article, media as well as sharing incident reports via email, sms or Twitter. Once the data has been downloaded, the app can function without an internet connection, allowing accurate collection of data utilizing the device’s camera and gps capabilities.

QUESTION #3: Can We Combine social media with geo-spatial mapping?

The description of Ushahidi’s app dovetails perfectly with the question of integrating social media with geo-spatial mapping. Again this example comes from the resent back-to-back crises in Australia. Although geo-spatial mapping with crowdsourced data on the Ushahidi platform  became very well known after its well-publicized use in Haiti, I think it showed even more promise in the application’s deployment in Australia when it was combined with the power of the GIS mapping giant, ESRI.  The application allowed for “trend analysis” and, based on reports from the field, was used by responders “to create releveance and context from social media reporting.”  See this article by Alex Howard, of O’Reilly Radar. Alex continues:

The Australian flooding web app includes the ability to toggle layers from OpenStreetMap, satellite imagery, topography, and filter by time or report type. By adding structured social data, the web app provides geospatial information system (GIS) operators with valuable situational awareness that goes beyond standard reporting, including the locations of property damage, roads affected, hazards, evacuations and power outages.

Here is a screen shot of ESRI’s application during Cyclone Yasi.

QUESTION #4How do we create feedback loops so that responders know when information coming from social media platforms has been acted upon? See the article listed below “From Haiti to-Helmand” for a detailed discussion of this point. Lin Well’s states that feedback is essential to not only know what has been acted upon, but to identify what has not.

There is a lot to discuss. I’m anxious to participate in the online chat with the emergency management community on this topic. I will report back with everyone’s thoughts.

Some Great Sources:

Your comments and suggestions are invited.