Tag Archives: technology

Reach Your Audience in an Emergency: #SMEM

Post by: Kim Stephens

Flooding was rampant yesterday for what seemed like half the country. Social Media was buzzing with images, safety tips and information about the event as it continued to get increasingly worse as the day wore on and the rain seemed unending.

Using social networks to communicate emergency, safety and preparedness information has now, in 2014, become a standard operating procedure for quite a few emergency management and response organizations. As with any standard procedure, each event can provide an opportunity to understand how to improve and adjust. As a person on the receiving end of the information stream yesterday, I noticed three things that could be improved upon.

1.  Ensure posts are “Mobile Ready”

On a day where the situation is changing rapidly, as it does with flooding, people will be looking for information anywhere they can get it. It is important to keep in mind that there is a high likelihood that those searches will be occurring on a mobile device. According to the Pew Research Center The growing ubiquity of cell phones, especially the rise of smartphones, has made social networking just a finger tap away.  Fully 40% of cell phone owners use a social networking site on their phone, and 28% do so on a typical day.” Of course, the deluge we experienced yesterday was anything but typical, so that percentage was more than likely much higher.

With this in mind, when posting content about road closures, for instance, make sure the user does not have to go to another site to get the information, as seen in this Facebook.

“[County X DPW reports] eight (8) roads closed as of 6:00 a.m. this morning. Crews working to re-open all roads today. For complete list of road closures visit: http://YouCan’tSeeThisOnYourPhone.gov”

There were only 8 roads closed–why not list them all? If you are using a micro-blogging site, such as Twitter, that won’t allow listing all roads in one post–do 8 separate posts.

2. Use Images to Make Your Point

A warning about the dangers of driving through standing water is good, such as the one below.

“A reminder to motorist; please watch for standing water this morning during morning commute. Do NOT drive through standing water.”

However, a picture of a water rescues or a stranded vehicle might be more of a deterrent.

3. Reinforce Where Citizens Can Find Information–On Every Platform

FT_13.10.16_GettingNews2There are many ways communities can reach their citizens with emergency information: a website, reserve calls, social media, door-to-door (if necessary). It is important to keep in mind that no single source will reach all of your citizens. Younger people may search social media for news and information (as shown by the Pew Research Center results) and older individuals might not ever look at your website.

However, linking and reinforcing all of those information outlets is important because you do not know where the citizen will start their search. I’ll use my own community as an example. Quite a few cities and counties have the service that allows them to call citizens on home phones or cell phones to provide updates about the situation. In my community, the call yesterday ended with a note to call the “Hotline” for more information. Unfortunately, there was no mention of their own social media sites that were up and running and providing vital emergency information and regular updates.  A quick visit to the county website also yielded disappointing results–there was no mention of the emergency at all and no easy way to navigate to current information. When choosing the “Facebook” link on the homepage, their emergency management page is not even on the list.


In terms of providing information to citizens via social networking the emergency management community does seem to “get it.”  We are now in a position to tweak and refine our processes in order to best serve our communities versus debate whether or not these are useful tools. That’s a good thing. Let me know, what lessons have you learned from recent experiences?

Crowdsourcing, Digital Volunteers, and Policy: New Workshop Summary from the Wilson Center

Post by: Kim Stephens

English: Woodrow Wilson International Center f...

English: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Español: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year ago this month the Commons Lab, part of the Wilson Center’s  Science & Technology Innovation Program, hosted a workshop with the goal of  “bringing together emergency responders, crisis mappers, researchers, and software programmers to discuss issues surrounding the adoption of… new technologies.”  The discussions included an in-depth review of crowdsourcing, specifically the use–as well as the reluctance, to use digital technology teams to aid in both message dissemination as well as data aggregation. The 148 page report from that meeting was released yesterday and is titled:  “Use of Mass Collaboration in Disaster Management” with a  focus on “opportunities and challenges posed by social media and other collaborative technologies.”

The Executive Summary states:

Factors obstructing the adoption of crowdsourcing, social media, and digital volunteerism approaches often include uncertainty about accuracy, fear of liability, inability to translate research into operational decision-making, and policy limitations on gathering and managing data. Prior to the workshop, many in the formal response community assumed that such obstructions are insurmountable and, therefore, that the approaches could not be adopted by the response community. However, it became clear during the workshop that these approaches are already being integrated into disaster response strategies at various scales. From federal agencies to local emergency managers, officials have begun exploring the potential of the technologies available. Stories of success and failure were common, but out of both came policy, research, and technological implications. Panelists shared strategies to overcome barriers where it is appropriate, but resisted change in areas where policy barriers serve a meaningful purpose in the new technological environment.

…Workshop participants identified the following activities as some of the more urgent research priorities:

  • Creating durable workflows to connect the information needs of on-the-ground responders, local and federal government decision-makers, and researchers, allowing each group to benefit from collaboration;
  • Developing methods and processes to quickly validate and verify crowdsourced data;
  • Establishing best practices for integrating crowdsourced and citizen-generated data with authoritative datasets, while also streamlining this integration;
  • Deciding on the criteria for “good” policies and determining which policies need to be adapted or established, in addition to developing ways for agencies to anticipate rapid technological change;
  • Determining where government agencies can effectively leverage social networking, crowdsourcing, and other innovations to augment existing information or intelligence and improve decision-making (and determining where it is not appropriate).

International Conference of Crisis Mappers, Four Themes


Intensity map for the 2010 Haiti earthquake

Image via Wikipedia


Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (Oct. 1-3) brought together many different groups of experts, with disciplines ranging from geospatial intelligence to international humanitarian relief, to focus in part on lessons learned from the response to Haiti. At the start of  the conference Patrick Meier, one of the event organizers, asked participants to reflect on how communication, cooperation and coordination can be improved for future responses to large-scale disasters. He reminded the audience, “Haiti is a clear outlier…we should be inspired by the response…but should not use it as our only model for moving forward.”

By examining tweets from the audience made during the morning presentations, I was able to tease out several themes that emerged:

1. Response organizations in Haiti mostly had to rely on low-tech solutions for mapping since the country had little technology infrastructure.

  • Paper maps were the norm for those working the response on the ground.
  • Information gaps existed, according to some, due to a lack of technology and spatial awareness of both the citizens in the affected country and the response community.
  • Information overload on the ground is what stops most collaboration/coordination from happening.
  • No matter how many digital maps are made, ultimately, decisions are made from sitreps and verbal agreements on the ground. Therefore, there are real challenges in incorporating crowdsourced information into established organizations and data flows.

2. Finding information about the affected area was sometimes easier to gather from those not in the impacted zone (e.g. , those in the Diaspora), although getting that information into the hands of responders in the field was a   challenge.

  • Discovering information about a particular place doesn’t always have to come from  survivors. Sometimes a “local” can be physically very far from the disaster location (a large number of ex-patriots wanted to help and had first hand knowledge of the impacted area).
  • Ushahidi’s best accomplishment could very well have been crowdsourcing volunteers.
  • Crowdsourcing also occurred in traditional organizations. The World Bank’s Galen Evans described how over 600 earthquake engineers were essentially crowdsourced to analyze aerial data.
    • Everyone wants to help in a disaster, but we should think about what experts can be utilized during an event before the event.
  • Was the information coming from SMS texts reliable? Christine Corbane from the Joint Research Centre explained how their research found geo-tagged, crowdsourced SMS text messages highly correlated to the spatial distribution of building damage intensity in Port-au-Prince.

3. The crisis mapping community can add value to the response community, but processes to do so need to be established.

  • The crisis mapping community can translate each affected person’s story during a disaster into actionable data so that crisis managers can act. (See great new blog post by Gisli Olafsson on this topic.)
  • But, creating a common language among cartographers, humanitarians and beneficiaries is tricky: we need to develop baseline cartographic literacy.
  • The UN’s OCHA representative described how the emerging technology community and the humanitarian community don’t speak the same language. The one thing we have in common is that we all want to help. Questions remain:
    • Who coordinates the crowds?
    • How does the tech community fit into the UN cluster groups?
    • Can the crowd be used for data processing and data cleaning?
    • Why didn’t these groups coordinate during the event? Everyone was overloaded, pre-event coordination needs to occur.
  • The keys to success will be shared standards, shared situational awareness, and shared goals.
  • Standard operating procedures should be put in place to help govern this information sharing.

4. Affected populations or nations can and should be empowered to help themselves.

  • Ushahidi representative noted how empowering the local community in Haiti was key, and the locals eventually took over information curation.
  • The Grassroots Mapping Network discussed how simple technology can be employed for data anaylsis:  anyone can use their kit to fly a kite or balloon with a camera attached and gather data without the need for a satellite connection.  This inexpensive solution can help communities do their own mapping.
  • A representative from Development Seed discussed how we should think about needs first and technology second because there are many places that have limited technology capabilities. He stated:”This is why we are building really tiny software” and introduced maps on a stick, or maps on USB drives loaded with spatial data for low resource settings. This can help people in the field, even those that don’t have internet connections.

One tweet sort of sums up the day: Does better data come from improved technology or more meaningful engagement of locals?”

For a complete summary of each speaker, see the blog of  Jillian C. York who transcribed the talks as they occurred.

For a more complete after action report on Crisis Information Management during the Haitian earthquake: see: “Haiti and Beyond” by the ICT for Peace Foundation, March 2010.

Survey Results of Federal and State Use of Social Media

Two different organizations recently surveyed State and Federal Government employees and contractors in order to determine adoption, application, expectation and challenges regarding the implementation of social media.  Market Connections, Inc. released a report entitled Social Media in the Federal Community. The other report, entitled Friends, Followers, and Feeds, was written by the National Association of State CIOs Social Media Working group (NASCIO).

NASCIO’s survey had a high participation rate with 79% of states’ CIOs responding. The biggest challenges the states listed with regard to implementing social media included security, liability, privacy, records maintenance/management and terms of acceptable use. On a personal note, visiting with local Emergency Management Agencies I also find these concerns to be the biggest impediments. Legal concerns are troubling to Emergency Management Agencies in particular since they could potentially involve a life-threatening scenario. For example, if someone was unable to dial 911 due to lack of connectivity, but had enough of a signal to send a tweet or a text, would emergency services be liable if they did not respond? (If you know the answer please comment.)

Another interesting finding from NASCIO were the responses regarding “next steps”. Not surprisingly, a large number of respondents acknowledged the need to integrate mobile social media into their communications strategy.

  • “The growth of online government in the future will increasingly be in the mobile environment (emphasis added), and it is expected that state governments will be exploiting this extensively through social media channels. A growing number of end-users already look at their governments almost exclusively through the three and a half inch screens of their smartphones, and this trend will only continue. States will be expected to know how they look and perform through that lens.” [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=mobile+technology&iid=9485675″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9485675/rim-and-announce-new/rim-and-announce-new.jpg?size=500&imageId=9485675″ width=”380″ height=”586″ /]
  • “Utah state government has moved quickly in the areas of integration and aggregation and incorporated social media and other Web 2.0 technologies prominently in the major website design of Utah.gov in 2009. (Go see their site, it’s very nice!) Their connect.utah.gov page offers mobile applications and geo-IP location-aware technology to personalize each user’s experience, and dozens of interactive services are provided to make Utah.gov more convenient for Utah citizens and businesses.”

The survey of Federal Agencies and Federal Contractors was conducted by Market Connections, Inc.. They also found security concerns to be the top challenge regarding adoption.  Government contractors, on the other hand, seemed to understand how social media can help  with “building the company’s brand” with 86% percents seeing this as the main benefit of increasing their SM presence. Sixty-one percent of contractor respondents indicated that they plan to increase their budget for SM in the next 12-18 months. This can be compared to the Federal responses where only 22% indicated they plan to increase their use of social media in the next 12-18 months. It seems contractors are starting to see SM as a necessary part of their business plan while some federal employees still seem to view the entire endeavor with suspicion.

A large portion of respondents in all the surveys indicated that one of the challenges to adoption is a “lack of resources to maintain presence”. Anecdotally, I have also found this to be true at the local level: more often than not there is no staff position called “social media guru”. This may change in the future, but for a lot of offices one “lucky” person gets to do the job in addition to their normal duties.

How can the Emergency Management community use technology to improve resilience?

Congestion caused by a road accident, Algarve,...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

David Wild from the All Hazards Blog, recently asked: “How can we effectively engage citizens in disaster and emergency management?”  Read the article for all of his suggestions which include using social media more aggressively and finding ways to give people more skills and power (such as EMT or firefighter training) to help respond during disasters “when resources are stretched.” All of his suggestions were good ones, but I was most interested in his second recommendation:

Start true innovation in the use of technology in Emergency Management. Identify where the rest of the world is technologically way ahead of the EM community, and embrace these rather than trying to replicate them in an expensive fashion. Buy everyone involved in EM an iPad. Employ people to write apps for EM. Give these away free to everyone, not just emergency managers.

The desired result of any disaster preparedness communications plan is to increase the resilience of a community. By communicating risk information we hope to change behavior in some way (e.g., persuade people to complete a family response plan). Unfortunately, disaster preparedness information often is delivered in formats that are generic, static, and impersonal. But new mobile and computer aided communications, such as social media, can provide the most effective means of communicating risk information to citizens ever available to the emergency management community. Apps are an important tool because they can be written to provide mobile, location-specific risk and hazard identification information.  Also, personalized, geo-located information increasingly is becoming an expectation if not a demand of the public, owing to their experiences with companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google and even Facebook.

An interesting example of an emerging technology is the use of geo-located information in traffic navigation systems, described in Discover Magazine’s September issue; see “Future tech: Tomorrow’s cares may finally realize the driver’s great dream: a cure for the common traffic jam”. The author outlines how people’s cell phones traveling in their vehicles have provided data necessary to monitor traffic more effectively.

“Some 4 million phones now report their speed and position to Nokia-owned Navteq along; millions more report to other traffic-data service….Those numbers are sent off in much the same way that text messages are, except it happens automatically, without your involvement.”

Privacy is protected by tagging the data with a random-identifier with no personal information attached. This vast amount of information translates into better navigations systems that can predict jams and route the driver around them.

Within a few years, travel-monitoring services such as Navteq plan to refine the predictive process by turning you into a real-time, on-the-scene traffic reporter…you will soon be prompted to feed the companies information about delays.”

When a driver hits the brakes they will be asked to answer simple “yes” or “no” questions (hopefully designed not to distract the driver too much) such as “Is it an accident?” ‘Is is blocking more than one lane” etc. Once the data is anaylzed by the central computers at the nav companies, the info will be quickly disseminated to vehicles in the vicinity in order to avoid the “mess”. The article even calls it “crowdsourced navigation”.

The expression “Every citizen is a sensor”  is taken literally in this case. I like this example because it demonstrates how solutions to emergency management problems, such as how best control traffic during mass evacuations, could be aided through the use of technologies developed for non-EM functions.

Verifying information from the crowd–can it be done?


Image by Gobierno de Aragón via Flickr

Whenever I mention the concept of obtaining situational-awareness information from citizens, the people in logo shirts cringe. The question of data veracity is always the chief concern, as demonstrated by the discussion on this blog a couple of weeks about the Oil Spill Crisis Map (which displays an aggregation of citizen reports regarding the BP Oil Spill). Others in emergency management completely dismiss the notion out-of-hand.

The international humanitarian response community, however, does not have the luxury of ignoring “real-time  streams of data” from citizens impacted by either man-made or natural disaster events. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as my Texas mother would say, processes, both human and technological, have been developed to address the issue. I should note that this effort is occurring mostly in the NGO sector. (But , see a tangentially related  initiative by the U.S. State Department call Civil Society 2.0, announced last Dec.)

The organization leading the way is the non-profit tech company, Ushahidi. What is Ushahidi?

Ushahidi …specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection,visualization and interactive mapping. We build tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. We’re a disruptive organization that is willing to fail in the pursuit of changing the traditional way that information flows.

Since the Ushahidi software is available for any organization (public or private) to use,  the creators developed a guide for users that specifically addresses how to verify data from citizens. You can peruse the one-page document, but in general it touches on everything from direct communication with the source, to looking out for  “poison data”, or intentionally misleading information.

Another way to verify data is with the deployment of their newly upgraded software “Swiftriver.”   This software enables the user to do several things: mine intelligence from the web; aggregate data from multiple sources; monitor mentions of your company, organization, or agency; and categorize information based on semantic context.  From their website:

SwiftRiver is a free and open source platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time. …

In practice, SwiftRiver enables the filtering and verification of real-time data from channels such as Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds. This free tool is especially useful for organizations who need to sort their data by authority and accuracy, as opposed to popularity. These organizations include the media, emergency response groups, election monitors and more.

The SwiftRiver platform offers organizations an easy way to combine natural language/artificial intelligence process, data-mining for SMS and Twitter, and verification algorithms for different sources of information. Swift’s user-friendly dashboard means that users need not be experts in artificial intelligence or algorithms to aggregate and validate information. The intuitive dashboard allows users to easily manage sources of information they wish to triangulate, such as email, Twitter, SMS and RSS feeds from the web.

I think this is interesting because it is a completely different way to sort information during a response. Although currently Ushahidi might be one of the few companies developing these technologies, I suspect many more software applications will become available as organizations, response and otherwise, see the benefits in “mining data”.  I also predict that privacy concerns will surface as these practices become more common.

This might make a lot of emergency managers uncomfortable. I like this quote from the article “Aid groups using cellphones to reach the world’s poor” in yesterday’s Washington Post :

“Tech is an enabler, not the end goal,” said David Edelstein, vice president of technology programs for Grameen. “It’s about putting information into people’s hands and empowering them.”

New Media = Good Government (?)

posted by Claire B. Rubin

Your Pass To Good Government, Newsweek, August 16. The byline to this article is:  “Skip the lines, forget about bribes. E-gov gives anyone with  a web connection direct access to public services.”

The assumption that the speed of the message/request arriving via new digital media will be matched by the speed of the response or delivery of services is, in my view, a serious mistake.  The ability of government agencies to collect, analyze and act on requests arriving via new media is no greater than it was via the traditional means. It might even be slower, since agency personnel need to monitor additional new media to collect the requests.