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National Capital Region: Social Media Summit

Post by: Kim Stephens

The National Capital Region is  hosting a social media summit today, July 19, 2012. I am more than privileged to attend, facilitate and present at this event. As of last count we have about 130 people scheduled to participate from across the region including local, state and federal officials.

The goal of the meeting is to “discuss, define and discover solutions for the use of social media during emergencies in the D.C., Virginia and Maryland area.”  We asked people about what they hoped to get of the meeting and there were varying responses, all with the word or concept of “learning” in them.

  • “I hope to learn how other organizations are using social media…”
  • “I hope to get ideas/information about how to use the tools to gain situational awareness”
  • I want to learn as much as I can!

One of the focuses will be on what we learned from the recent Derecho storm that hit this area pretty hard. Whether or not organizations were using social media for the first time or the 100th, there will be plenty of areas for reflection.

From my perspective, I will be using my 8 minute spark presentation to talk about lessons I personally learned just last week while helping facilitate a CERT training seminar for deaf,  hard of hearing, and interpreters on the Gallaudet campus in Washington, D.C. At the training, I presented a module on social media: I came away with a few new ideas and changed perceptions as did some of the CERT members–it was a great information exchange! Some observations and outcomes:

Chris Littlewood presents at the CERT training sponsored by ServeDC.

  1. Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals are very visual–ASL is, after all, a visual language. Therefore, the written word doesn’t carry as much weight as the signed word. Lesson: Response agencies should include as many pictures and videos as possible to communicate their message.
  2. Gallaudet is considering creating 1-2 minute protective action videos in  American Sign Language for each of the common hazards in DC. These videos will be available on YouTube. This also means other response organizations will be able to link to this content in Tweets and in Facebook posts–and even on their websites.
  3. Facebook is the platform of choice of most older deaf individuals–there were a lot of professors and educators in the room versus students; however, I was told that the younger deaf population does use Twitter. There initially was  a misconception that Twitter was only text and therefore, not as user friendly to the deaf community as Facebook–where videos and pictures can be easily posted. Explaining how hyperlinks worked helped ease that concern.
  4. Videos posted without adequate captioning are useless, annoying or both. If you do this you are sending a message to this community that states loud and clear: “We don’t care!”
  5. There are interpreters for the deaf throughout the DC metropolitan area that are ready, willing and able to help in a crisis. Why not pull them in to help with social media?
  6. If your response organization has a social media presence, market it to the deaf community. Don’t expect them to magically find your information–actively seek them out and encourage them to follow you.

Social Media: A tool to reach the Access and Functional Needs Community

Post by: Kim Stephens

English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

As a part of a current project I have found some great content that references the use of social media as a tool to reach vulnerable populations.  There are four reports I’d like to highlight that address this concept–some from the point of view of the citizen, others from the point of view of the first responder. All of the reports remind us that a one-size-fits-all approach for communicating is not a successful strategy in this day and age where people get to pick how they find information. If you are reluctant to use social media because (as I’ve heard stated) you don’t think your community uses the tools–think again!

1. Social Media: A Tool For Inclusion was written by Anne Taylor with funding from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Horizontal Policy Integration Division (HPID). The report focuses on how people with access and functional needs can use social networking to overcome social isolation. This has  implications for emergency managers in the sense that the tools can also be used as a way to not only find vulnerable populations in your community, but also to develop relationships. She states:

Informants (study participants) indicate that Web 2.0 applications offer enormous possibilities for the disabled who may be marginalized by lack of mobility, vision, hearing or other disability that makes it difficult for them to participate in the civic, social, cultural or work‐related activities of mainstream society. The evidence is strong that the internet and social media, with the aid of assistive technologies, are improving the ability of many disabled people to participate more fully in their society. Members of the deaf community, for example, are said to be huge users of social media and video blogging. The Deaf Canada Conference that took place in June 2010 was supported by a lively 636‐member Facebook page. There is even a Canadian Deaf Native Facebook page. A 2009 Canada‐wide survey of over 700 self‐described disabled students with a mean age of 18 revealed that they engage in social media 12 hours a week for non‐school related activities and six hours a week for school‐related activities using, on average, between one and two types of specialized software. The most popular sites are Facebook, YouTube, MSN/Windows Live Messenger and Skype.

2. A report entitled Emergency Notification Strategies for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Planning Project, developed for the Western Massachusetts Homeland Security Advisory Council, also lists social media as an option for communicating, specifically with the deaf population during emergencies.

Research and outreach for this project revealed that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may rely more on social media options than traditional media for information during an emergency. There may be several reasons for this including limited closed-captioning on television broadcasts, limited ASL translation, and lack of real-time information updates. As such, social media options are gaining popularity for obtaining information, not just throughout the disability community, but for the population-at-large.

3. Emergent Use of Social Media: A new age of opportunity for disaster resilience (2011). This is an article is by MENoji E for the National Center for Environmental Health Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, CDC. The article discusses how social media tools can be used to help people cope with disaster. They  use the term “vulnerable populations” very broadly: anyone suffering from stress after an event. However, the benefit of being connected would translate to the access and functional needs population as well.

“Social media may also offer potential psychological benefit for vulnerable populations gained through participation as stakeholders in the response. Disaster victims report a psychological need to contribute, and by doing so, they are better able to cope with their situation. Affected populations may gain resilience by replacing their helplessness with dignity, control, as well as personal and collective responsibility.”

4.Communicating with Vulnerable Populations: A Transportation and Emergency Management Toolkit. What I like most about this toolkit, even though the main focus is not social media, is that their suggestions emphasize relationship building–something that social media can help accomplish.  They state that local emergency managers should “Understand the local community sufficiently to decide what information is important and how best to communicate it in fully accessible formats so that people are informed, responsive, and motivated.”

I also like this sentiment, which I hear stated repeatedly by my colleagues who are seeped in  social media and emergency management:

“Encouraging individuals to act during emergencies requires communicating with them through multiple channels.

  • These channels depend on trusted relationships built over time, so they are well established in times of crisis.
  • A pre-crisis network of communication channels can carry messages across barriers and create a safety net that prevents especially vulnerable people from missing access to transportation assistance in emergencies.”

If you know of other research that mentions social media as a way to connect with  vulnerable populations before, during and after a crisis, please make note of it in the comments section.

Anaheim CERT to Monitor Social Media During a Disaster

Post by: Kim Stephens

It has been documented that government agencies often experience a 500% increase in the number of followers and “fans” to their social media sites during a disaster. Monitoring those sites and responding to requests for information can become overwhelming: at a minimum it is most certainly labor intensive. Emergency management organizations, both government and non-governmental alike, are starting to understand how enormous this task could be and are looking for innovative solutions to solve the problem.  Anaheim, California has turned to their CERT members.

This tweet by Craig Fugate is over a year old, suggesting that the concept of CERT members playing a role in monitoring social networks or even in reporting observations through those platforms, is not necessarily a new idea. The concept is built on the notion that these folks are “trusted agents,” already trained in basic emergency skills, and  known quantities by the response organization. However, I have yet to really see many CERTs move in this direction, making the Anaheim CERT a really interesting test case.  I interviewed the CERT coordinator in order to determine what was necessary in order to accomplish this goal. (I appreciate their candidness!) Below are the results from that interview.


Roles and Responsibilities: CERT volunteers already serve in a community outreach capacity by supplementing staff in the “hotline room” by answer questions on the phone. The concept is to extend these responsibilities to social networks. The social media monitoring volunteers will be used primarily to keep track of comments and social data posted to the communities’ social platforms. They will also be allowed to retweet (repeat a message on twitter) anything that has already been put out by the Public Information Officer (PIO).  They currently have 3 laptops dedicated for volunteers, loaded with an enhanced excel capability called “Pivot Table”. Pivot table will allow the digital volunteers to record the event and do real-time data-mining, including listing frequently asked questions, etc.  CERT members will be required to monitor the social stream in the EOC hotline room.

Training: The CERT coordinator is planning to do training for social media monitoring and use of the “pivot table” tool (she is planning to share this training with regional partners). The training  will include: hot-line room standard operating procedures; reporting protocols; rules regarding what they can and cannot say; and, potentially, will require participation in a monthly twitter chat. Volunteers will also be taught “how” to monitor including which search terms to use etc., as well as which platforms to monitor. However, volunteers will be given some latitude to keep track of all the platforms they see fit.  The training currently does not include a module on how to verify information, however, that is a consideration for future efforts.

Linking to Operations: Specifically, regarding reporting protocols and procedures, pertinent information the monitoring team discovers will loop back into the EOC planning and operations section via the PIO. Any life threatening information will be sent directly to the dispatcher and non-life threatening info will get written down on paper or in an email and is sent to the PIO to review then decide which section it should go to. Currently, CERT “digital volunteers” do not have access to WebEOC, but they have discussed granting limited access so that they can input the information directly. (The CERT coordinator supplied the graphic below.) She states: “Depending upon the platform, some steps may require modification.  For example individual [citizens] may post to YouTube which may require a response post or a comment directing individuals to a website or blog with more information. “  She indicated that a determination would also be made whether or not the YouTube video provided helpful content that should be disseminated using other platforms.

What concerns people? The biggest concern of emergency management professionals in Anaheim regarding this new monitoring program is liability: “What if messages are not addressed and then the agency gets sued?”

Thank you @AnaheimCERT for the interview and great responses.

Are you looking to do anything similar with your CERT? Please let me know.

[1] Stephens, Kim, “SMEM chat: Monitoring Social Networks—How do we Listen?”  March, 2011, https://idisaster.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/smem-chat-monitoring-social-networks-how-do-we-listen/.

Joplin Missouri Survivors reflect on use of Social Media

English: Boone County Fire Protection District...

Image via Wikipedia

This post is a story of the “Joplin Tornado Information” Facebook page and a reflection of what volunteers accomplished in the aftermath of the F5 tornado that roared through their town in 2011. Although much of the town was torn apart, the human connections actually grew– in part because people were able to use information communication technologies to come together virtually, as well as in person. This volunteer effort demonstrates what can be done with hard work, a few ground rules, and social media.  They reached out to me to share their story.  They also developed a “Social Media for Disaster Reovery Field Guide” which I will put up in a separate post.


“Joplin Tornado Info was created and managed by 23 year old Genevieve Williams, Neosho, Mo. less than two hours after the May 22nd tornado. JTI was honored as one of seven nominees for a 2011 Mashable Award in the Social Good Cause Campaign Category.”

Guest Post by: Rebecca Williams


May 22, 2011 7:26 p.m.

First Joplin Tornado Info post

We heard the KSN news anchors beg people to take cover, and then take cover themselves…It was obvious Joplin was being hit by a tornado.  Neosho and Joplin are close-knit communities and only 16 miles apart. How bad was it in Joplin?  A friend that works at St. John’s Hospital posted on Facebook it had been hit. How could we find accurate information about what was going on?  We searched the internet and found virtually nothing of help. We don’t remember for certain how it happened but within the hour at my coffee table using an iPhone, Joplin Tornado Info was born. When the page was started we had no idea we had just signed on as a communication link for one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.  By sunrise the morning of the 23rd, the breadth and scope of what had happened became clear.

Across town, unbeknownst to us, a friend Joel Clark  launched  joplintornado.info website. None of us can remember exactly how we connected and merged JTI Facebook with joplintornado.info but it happened within the first 48 hours.  People ask what was different about the Joplin response and what led FEMA to applaud the rescue and recovery. I would say the can-do and help-your-neighbor attitude of the people of the area, the on the spot response of area faith based organizations, the overwhelming support of the people of the region and the nation, and the presence of social media were deciding factors. This is the story of one social media outlet:  Joplin Tornado Info.

The tornado hit at 5:41 p.m. At 7:36 p.m. Joplin Tornado Info Facebook page made its first post, went viral, began connecting dots between needs, resources, transportation, storage and dispersal and had become a trusted, timely news source.

The first days and even weeks after the tornado remain a blur, we have pulled out the worn legal pads that were JTI, (as it came to be called in those early days) and watched YouTube videos of the KSN tower cam footage and Red Cross volunteer Marie Colby’s video among others and talked about how it was at JTI after the tornado,  to remember. Almost a year has passed and there are still not words to express what happened during Joplin’s early recovery. The dazed look on the faces of survivors is haunting.

We quickly reached over 49,000 fans. It all happened so fast and just as fast there were people helping us.  Several groups and individuals such as the group of people that went to the computer lab at Crowder College and continuously posted critical information to JTI were unofficial admins of the page and vital to our efforts.

From the beginning we relied on the JTI community to post and repost for the good of the Joplin effort. Jennifer and Michelle both reached out from Alabama that first night to help. Volunteer admins signed on and others just took it upon themselves to help. JTI was a community page and early on people responded. Within hours we also had admins and or points of contact from all of the utility companies.

Relief organizations, Churches and news sources began posting on our site as well. We made every effort to read and answer every post. JTI pages moved so fast at one time that it was necessary to repost vital information often or it became lost in the Facebook newsfeed. We monitored all available news sources and reposted to JTI.

We didn’t sleep much during those first few weeks. We devoted every waking minute to JTI and coordinating efforts to connect the dots for the next two months. We were not alone in this; many people in our area put their lives and livelihoods on hold to do what they could for Joplin.  There was such an overwhelming response to the need in Joplin and supplies came in so fast that FEMA the Red Cross, and other major organizations quickly became overwhelmed. Through JTI overflow storage was coordinated by Royce at the Galena High School Football Field. Royce became a vital part of JTI as we routed donations to area storage and dispersal locations. Solace, a youth based church on the fringe of ground zero with an average age of 24 and attendance of less than that went from evening service to relief center in the blink of an eye. People of the area did what they could when they could. Back in the day, if your neighbor’s barn was on fire you dropped what you were doing and ran to help your neighbor put the fire out. Joplin’s barn was on fire and area people responded as they had for generations.

In the beginning many of the community posts were people searching for missing loved ones, asking about shelter and water. One memorable post was the joy we had notifying people that huge water trucks were pulling in to memorial hall, to bring containers and get what you need. Water was off throughout Joplin and these trucks were such a blessing. JTI was not about fluff. Many survivors were literally hand to mouth. As we posted, food, water, bandage, clothing locations people texted our posts to survivors at ground zero who relied on cell phones texts for all outside communication. We accepted no donations, endorsed no specific church, charity or organization. JTI is a community page with no affiliation or loyalty to any group or entity. JTI made every effort to post timely, concise, accurate, unbiased information.

My daughter, Genevieve and I came to realize that in this region none of us are more than a degree of separation from someone who lost their life in the tornado. We all know someone who died personally or we know someone who knew someone. When locals speak of the tornado now, we don’t ask “were you affected”? We have come to realize that this was a regional tragedy we were all affected.

Our mourning for those we lost will go on as long as we do. Out of our grieve and necessity the tornado aftermath has given birth to change, innovation, invention, entrepreneurship, volunteerism and philanthropy that many of us were unaware was within us. Folks in the area take the tornado and recovery in stride and continue to look for ways to help those in need. Joplin and area folks are reaching out today to our neighbors, Branson and the several other communities hit by the Leap Day Storm, doing what we can and lending our experience. We are working in conjunction with David Burton, University Mo.-Extension, JTI admin since nearly the beginning from David had the foresight to set up 3 tornado info facebook pages in advance. One of these pages was Branson Tornado Info which by sad coincidence was put into use in the Leap Day Storm and quickly went viral with over 16,000 fans in 48 hrs.  A free downloadable PDF “Social Media Use For Disaster Recovery-a field guide” is being released and will be linked on the JTI page.

As of this writing, the beginning of meteorological spring March, 1, 2012,  JTI has had­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ 87,112,786 post views from over 20 countries and languages. After peaking at just over 49,000.  Nine months after the tornado  JTI retains 47,754 of its original fans despite continued multiple daily posts. Our remaining 47,000 plus fans have a combined social media reach of 10 million people.

States List Government Agencies’ Social Feeds

Post by: Kim Stephens

Can you readily identify every government agency that has a social media presence in your town, county, or state? During  a crisis having a “dashboard” of all of these feeds would be very valuable information. It would be interesting to survey every state to see how they are providing citizens this information. From my own sample of 10 states: Alaska, Vermont, Illinois, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Mexico, Missouri and the ones listed below, it seems to be about 70% have aggregated social media links. There are, however, various levels of how well this is executed. In my opinion, good execution would include an embedded and aggregated feed, lists of both state and local agencies, obvious navigation to the list from the homepage, and intuitive design.

Maryland–my homestate, for example, has a list of every agency and a hyperlink to their social media pages. It is easy to find this list from their homepage, the have a handy “More Social Media” tab that takes the user directly to it, however, the user does have to leave the State’s page to see the information.

The Texas.gov landing page also has a similar list, as does Virginia. I really like how Virginia lists both the local government agencies on social media as well as its State Universities. It’s a tad clunky how they display the list for the social media platforms, though. For example, on the right is a snap shot of their agencies on Facebook, but the user has to navigate to the “twitter” link  to find the agencies using that tool, and has to do the same for each tool listed:  Blogs, YouTube, Flickr, RSS, Podcasts and Widgets.

On the Utah “Connect with Government” page, the user also has to first choose the platform before they can see the agencies using the tool. I like that localities are listed, similar to Virginia, but with a new twist: the user sees all updates in real-time without having to click away from the page. I would change the navigation to this page, however, users really have to know what they are looking for–it is buried in the Government tab, under the subtab “Connect with Government”.  It’s easy to forgive the User Interface designers, though, because the whole site is beautiful.

My favorite State site I visited, regarding incorporation of SM, has to be Delaware. There is no second guessing whether or not they are using social media because the entire landing page is taken up by all of their statewide SM feeds, for example, even the bottom of the page is a Flickr gallery. The designers also include a handy tag cloud for users to search information.  I don’t have to know which agency is responsible for “unclaimed property”, I just click on the key word: fabulously simple.

Does you local government aggregate the agencies using social media on their home page? Let me know.

Still not convinced Social Media is important? Read Craig Fugate’s Testimony

Federal Emergency Management Agency

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Post by: Kim Stephens

Here is the link to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s written statement of his testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Repsonse and Communications. The stated topic was FEMA’s progress since the enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) five years ago.

On page 7 he states the importance of social media and mobile communications:

“Looking to the emergency communications of the future, FEMA is also developing a next- generation infrastructure for alert and warning capabilities, known as PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network). Cell phones are data centers, capable of quickly accessing and storing a large amount of information. One of the major lessons we learned from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti was that even if the physical infrastructure of an area is completely destroyed, the cellular infrastructure may be able to bounce back quickly, allowing emergency managers to relay important disaster-related information and enabling the public to request help from local first responders. This new, free public safety system allows customers with an enabled mobile device to receive geographically targeted messages alerting them of imminent threats to safety in their area whether nearby cell phone towers are jammed or not.

We are also expanding our use of social media tools. Social media is an important part of the Whole Community approach because it helps facilitate the vital two-way communication between emergency management agencies and the public, and it allows us to quickly and specifically share information with state, local, territorial, and tribal governments as well as the public. FEMA uses multiple social media technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach the public. Rather than asking the public to change the way they communicate to fit our system, we are adapting the way we do business to fit the way the public already communicates. We value social media tools not only because they allow us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because they allow us to incorporate critical updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.”

Do You Have an Engagement Policy and a Plan?

"Biggest Little City in the World" a...

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Post by: Kim Stephens

A blog post by the City of Reno’s Web Services Program Manager, Kristy Fifelski, caught my eye regarding an exchange on their City’s social media accounts. A small business owner voiced his displeasure about an upcoming road closure in a tweet, simply stating “Boo @CityofReno…Thanks for the 1 day notice and for hurting our family business.” The City quickly checked into the problem and were able to resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction.

This story, of course,  is only interesting in how it reveals their underlying citizen-engagement philosophy. As Ms. Fifelski stated:  “We decided from the beginning that if we were going to try to connect with people online, we needed to be responsive and have an internal process for addressing any issues. I’m grateful for the department support we have to make that happen, and that we have so many people here who really care.” 

Opening a facebook account and a twitter feed in order to only push out information is not difficult; however,  deciding how you will deal with feedback (especially when there is a crisis or disaster event) is a much more complicated endeavor. After seeing Reno’s blog post I visited their Facebook-info page. I really like their stated policy:

This is the official Facebook page for the City of Reno. We are connected to several social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. We like comments and interaction from residents and visitors.

Our goal is to handle comments and replies made by the public according to the following standards:

  • The purpose of this Facebook page is to deliver news and event information from the City of Reno to people who are interested in our programs and activities. We will review the page every work day, before noon.
  • If someone posts a comment that requires a response, it will be answered with a status of the response within 16 work hours (two work days) and with the full response within five work days.
  • Posts or comments requiring a service request will be submitted to Reno Direct for inclusion in the customer relationship management system.
  • City employees will immediately remove any comment which violates any local, state, or federal law regarding discrimination, harassment, or violence. In addition, if the content contains offensive language, is discriminatory, a commercial message, or is out of context, then that content will be removed.

Although this policy might not be an exact fit for you agency, I would steal this language “Our goal is to handle comments and replies made by the public according to the following standards…” This example helps us frame questions we should be asking ourselves, such as:

  • What is our goal for  handling comments? (If you don’t respond at all to comments, you should state that as well.)
  • What are our standards?
  •  How might standards change during a crisis? Will we need to increase staff to handle a large influx of feedback, or will we make it clear there is a different standard and slower response time during a disaster or crisis event?
  • What internal processes will need to be changed (if any) in order to deal with requests for information and feedback from our web-presence in a manner that is consistent with the stated standard?
  • Is this policy going to be the same for each of our City’s web-based platforms?  (Law enforcement, Public Health, Mayor’s office)

If you are on a “social” network people have some level of expectation that you will answer their direct questions. Having a plan for how you will do that, and posting that plan, just makes sense.

Processing and Analyzing Social Media in a Crisis

Post by: Kim Stephens

One valid concern that almost always comes up when discussing social media with an audience of emergency managers is:  “How do we keep up with all of this information in a crisis?” The sheer volume of social media content can be overwhelming, especially after a disaster. For example, after the flooding crisis in Australia just one of the Queensland Police Service’s facebook posts received 11,000 comments–they regularly had over a 1,000 comments on each of their posts during the height of the crisis.  As another example, immediately after the earthquake in Japan, a Mashable article stated that  the number of tweets from Toyko topped 1,200 per minute.

The fear is obvious, how can emergency managers, already stretched during a crisis, analyze that volume of information in order to 1. Ensure that an important piece is not missed; 2. Enhance situational awareness, and 3. Respond in a timely manner to citizens that ask direct questions through these social media platforms. The analogy of drinking from a fire hose is applicable.

During the Social Media Chat (#SMEMchat) this past Friday (archived here by the wonderful @EmrgncyTraffic) we were discussing a related problem, too many social media platforms.  FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tweeted:

This concept of using computer processing or geospatial search tools to map feedback  is  currently being developed by many different people and organizations.  All of these types of applications usually involve a way to sort, analyze and then place the social media data on a visualization tool (e.g. a map). Although Ushahidi  and Project EPIC were two of first, others are entering the marketplace, including the GeoVista Center of Penn State University. They have recently built a tool they are calling SensePlace2. Currently, this version only supports the processing of tweets. Here’s their description:  “a geovisual analytics application that forages place-time-attribute information from the Twitterverse and supports crisis management through visually-enabled sensemaking with the information derived.”

Outsourcing to Trusted Agents

Other SMEM chats have focused on  how to get help with social media data processing, and one of suggestion is to outsource this task to a predetermined group of “trusted agents,” as stated by Chris Hall aka TheFireTracker2. This could be a group of  people that are well-known to you personally, such as the local CERT team, or it could be people you have come to trust but have never met (e.g. I have never met TheFireTracker IRL–in real life) .

The Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST)  is an idea that is currently in the development stage and is designed around this concept of outsourcing. The brainchild of Jeff Philips, a SMEM thought-leader, the VOST is designed to help with the tasks of monitoring, archiving and cataloging  social media content during a crisis. One great thing about monitoring social media is that you do not have to be physically co-located with emergency response personnel; monitoring can take place from anywhere, including from a home personal computer. The team Jeff has assembled, via social media of course,  have been testing this concept during conferences with large amounts of twitter traffic (such as the 140 conference). The team is currently collaborating to write a White Paper describing the details of the concept. I’m looking forward to its publication.

These are just a few examples of solutions to this data processing quandary. I’ll be writing about some other new tools in the coming weeks.

Social Media and Emergency Management: Top 10 Questions

Post by: Kim Stephens

Warm weather seems to bring numerous conferences.  After speaking to various groups I am reminded that there is a large contingent of people in response organizations that have heard of social media, but might not understand some of the basics. If you fall into that camp, this post is for you. I have outlined the top ten questions that I often hear, both through speaking and even through our Social Media and Emergency Management chats.

For an even greater wealth of information, however, I recommend Patrice Cloutier and Barry Radford’s marvelous guidebook entitled: “Project to Advance Crisis and Emergency Communications” April, 2011.  This is essentially a social media “toolkit” filled with hyperlinks to valuable sources about how, and why emergency management organizations can use social media not only to provide information to the public, but also to gain situational awareness  from the public. The bibliography associated with this blog, also has great resources to pull from for basic knowledge.

1. What is social media?  

See the U.S. Navy Handbook for Social Media for a basic definition-“Social Media is an umbrella term describing a variety of platforms, social networking being the most well-known among them.” Others define it as  “Websites which build on Web 2.0 technologies to provide space for in-depth social interaction, community formation, and the tackling of collaborative projects.”

Art work by: Lazy Crazy Devian Tart.com

2. What is twitter?

For this answer simply turn to twitter itself. They describe the tool as follows:

An information network

“Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting…At the heart of Twitter are small bursts of information called Tweets. Each Tweet is 140 characters in length… Connected to each Tweet is a rich details pane that provides additional information, deeper context and embedded media. You can tell your story within your Tweet, or you can think of a Tweet as the headline, and use the details pane to tell the rest with photos, videos and other media content. See it in action.”

You don’t have to tweet to get value from Twitter

“You don’t have to build a web page to surf the web and you don’t have to tweet to enjoy Twitter. Whether you tweet 100 times a day or never, you still have access to the voices and information surrounding what interests you. You can contribute, or just listen in and retrieve up to the second information. Some people never tweet, they simply use Twitter as a way to get the latest information on their interests.”

Twitter for SMS

“Individuals, businesses and social causes can use Twitter for SMS and our Fast Follow program to connect directly to anyone with a mobile phone. Twitter for SMS is an instant infrastructure for mobile communications.” —This feature is currently only available in the U.S.

Why only 140 characters? From Twitter:  “… sending a text was originally the only way users could tweet. This is why Tweets are 140 characters — they need to fit into a text message.”

3. What are all those little symbols in twitter?

To the uninitiated, Twitter is full of strange acronyms and symbols. For someone who is not familiar with the “language” it can be a bit daunting. However, there are multiple resources to help you learn this new syntax. See Mashable’s great twitter guidebook for all things twitter. This great resource has hyperlinks to articles from the basic: What is a retweet RT? To advanced: Tools for organizing your twitter community.

4. What’s the difference between Twitter and Facebook? Are there other social media platforms we should be aware of?

See this Mashable article: Facebook, Twitter and the Two-Faces of Social Media, by Ben Parr, but these long quotes boil down his article fairly well:

What exactly is the difference? And is there one? People have used the terms ‘social media’ and ‘social network’ almost interchangeably over the years. It’s inaccurate to say that they’re the same thing, though. In fact, I argue that social networking is a branch of social media, and can itself be further broken down into two distinct branches — the social network and the information network….On Facebook, you’re supposed to connect with close friends. Becoming friends with someone means he or she gets to see your content, but you also get to see his or her content in return. On Twitter, that’s not the case: you choose what information you want to receive, and you have no obligation to follow anybody. Facebook emphasizes profiles and people, while Twitter emphasizes the actual content (in its case, tweets).”

For emergency management purposes these distinctions are somewhat important because,  with Twitter, you don’t have to follow even one person in order to gain situational awareness information–you can just “listen” by watching the various hashtags after an event.

Facebook, however, does require a little more effort. If you don’t actively try to get “fans” by posting often and being a great source for information yourself, then during a crisis people will go elsewhere and even create their own facebook pages about the event. Why should you care? Because if people are actively engaged on your Facebook page–asking and answering questions–that means you have a large group that can be your eyes and ears during the event (see my post about Australia as a best practice example). It also means you can spend more time monitoring your own facebook page and less trying to track down the 10-20 pages that have sprung up to fill the void left by your organization. Imagine having 165, 000  fans and millions more looking at each of your posts from which you could ask, for example, about a missing person or for information on a crime.

What other social networking and social media platforms should emergency management organizations be aware of? There are many, but a quick look through the Center for Disease Control’s toolkit is a great place to start. I often refer to their Social Media Tools, Guidelines and Best Practices  page where they detail how to gain a presence on  Flickr, YouTube, eCards and blogging platforms. Tumblr is another platform that is gaining in popularity–which is basically a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter.  Even the U.S. Department of State and the National Archives are “tumbling”.

5. What is a Tweetdeck? 

There are multiple tweet management systems (Tweetdeck and Hootsuite are the most user-friendly in my opinion) that allow users to see multiple twitter streams and content at one time, on a single screen. Essentially, they make it much easier to sort and view pertinent information. For example, one row could show every time you or your organization is mentioned, another could list every tweet related to the crisis (e.g. #joplin), and yet another could  list all of the response organizations you have connections to or are following (e.g. @FEMA, @NYCOEM, @LAFD). Here’s a blogpost about Tweetdeck that has two videos describing the basics.

6. Who in the office should be in charge of social media? Everyone is already so busy-no one wants an additional duty.

There is no doubt that currently quite a few emergency management organizations are short-staffed. Most small, local emergency management organizations probably don’t have a dedicated Public Information Officer, therefore, the responsibility of engaging on social media platforms usually falls to the person who is either interested in doing the job or who drew the shortest straw. I have seen, however, great success by organizations when the emergency manager themselves take the twitter helm. Why? Anecdotally, it seems to me that if the person at the head of the organization uses and understands the medium then the chances of its success will be increased.

Another approach is to take turns. I love the example from the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission Facebook page. The small office of about four people decided that in order to keep it fair, they would rotate the responsibility, one person per week, one time per month. They currently have over 40,000 fans–which is a huge number, so they must be doing something right. This approach might be especially effective for EMA’s during the preparedness phase. Furthermore, this would allow for continuity of social media operations since everyone would know how to use the SM platforms.

7. We are a homeland security agency, we can’t tweet or do any social media because we worry about security. Besides you can’t trust any information on social media, it’s all rumors.

The notion that social media platforms perpetuate incorrect content and rumors is not a hypothesis that is supported by fact. Does incorrect information make its way onto those platforms? Of course. But it has been proven in academic studies that the medium is very  self-correcting. Content analysis indicate that people retweet incorrect information significantly fewer times than correct information. Often people will not retweet (e.g. spread) content unless it is linked to a URL and a reputable source. See Alex Bruns research in this area.

One quick example of how the public reacts to content can be found in an exchange on the aforementioned Fish and Game FB page. One person asks about the limit on how many raccoons one person can kill (remember, its Arkansas) and another citizen correctly answers: zero–because the season hasn’t started yet. This is then affirmed by the Commission. This points out another key factor, if you are not involved, then you won’t have an opportunity to understand what misinformation is circulating.

Regarding security of information, this concern is usually about internal staff–people posting more information than they should. In fact, the U.S. Navy has a new expression “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets”. See their great take on security in their handbook (pages 5-6) on how to handle potential problems. I think this quote applies to public safety organizations as much as it does to the Navy:

“Establish expectations for your Sailors’ behavior online, set the example for them to follow and hold them accountable for their actions online just as you would do elsewhere.”

8. How do we get out the message that we are using social media, particularly to people who live in our community only seasonally?

Getting people to become your “fan” is not particularly an easy task when there isn’t a crisis. Therefore, it is necessary in all of your printed materials and on your website(s) to point out and link to your social media presence. Some businesses in the private sector often display “Like us on Facebook” banners, and public agencies–particularly those in seasonal communities, should be doing similar campaigns. This type of advertising can also be done to teach people how to “quick follow” your organization. If possible, it might be a good idea to have Hotels add your information in the portfolios they give guests. Also, ask your local Chamber of Commerce for ideas in how to get the word out.

9. During a crisis, all communications will be out.

This of course, really isn’t a question but more of an assumption we’ve all built into our catastrophic plans. However, recent major disasters have shown that web-enabled communications are more resilient than previously thought. Even after the massive earthquakes in Japan and Haiti messages were getting out via social media platforms either immediately or within 48 hours. Furthermore, don’t assume that if the power is out locally, no one will be viewing your content. One point to keep in mind–people from all over the world, depending on the scale of the crisis, will have an interest in your disaster for a myriad of reasons: a desire to help, a desire to understand  how friends or family might have faired, or just pure curiosity. No matter the motivation, it’s important to understand this potential audience. This is the group of people that can crash your website.

10. What do we write about? And/or how often should we post?

This is a question for the prepaparedness phase because during a crisis, what content to post should be self-evident. Some organizations simply want to have a social media presence ready to go in the event of a crisis. Others have a desire to build an audience and communicate emergency preparedness information. In other words, only by defining your goals and objectives for your social media presence will you understand what content to promote and how often. For ideas on how to create a great preparedness campaigns on social media platforms check out this post: Five Ways to Pump Up Your EM Facebook Presence.

These are just the basics, so please let me know what I’ve missed.

Joplin Tornado demonstrates Social Media’s 5 key roles in disaster response and recovery

Post by: Kim Stephens

The storms in Joplin, MO serve as yet one more reminder of the important roles social media play in a crisis. It seems after every event social media serve these same 5 or 6 functions:

1. Documentation of the event.

Photos and videos are usually the first thing to start coming across the social media “wire”.  This is not lost on the national news media. This tweet above is by NBC Nightly News and they ask people to”tweet or email us your photos & videos”. The Missouri government has also asked for people to send in their pictures and videos:

But there were plenty of pics circulating through social media immediately after the event.  Here is an interactive photo stream that has some very dramatic shots, including of the hospital that took a direct hit.
The picture above was shared through twitpic and is of tangled semi-trucks,  illustrating the power of the storm. Click here for a larger image. (Picture via twitpic @cris34k) The YouTube video that seemed to be the most widely circulated was one with little images at all. It’s popularity (over 37,000 hits at time of writing) is probably due to the shear terror in the people’s voices. One of my fellow twitter friends pointed out that the video also demonstrates people’s ability to remain calm and help the others in the room. Listen to it yourself, but be prepared to tear up.

2. I’m safe! and 3. Where are my friends and family?

In the immediate aftermath of the storm people in the impacted and surrounding area found trying to use the regular phone lines an exercise in futility and turned instead to social media and texting. This was mentioned briefly in an article about the storm in “The Wichita Eagle” newspaper:

Phone communications in and out of the city of about 50,000 people were largely cut off. Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings…

Some people [on social networking sites] were quick to post that they and their families are OK, or to get the word out that loved ones are missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines, but able to text and use social media.

For those who were not able to find their loved ones immediately, the American Red Cross has also set up a “Safe and Well” website. People can register themselves as safe and family members can search through the registry. This information has also been widely circulated through social media sites. It seems not everyone is using the Safe and Well resource, however. There are many places to find people asking for information about their loved ones. Some are just simply tweeting the name of the missing and asking for folks to (RT) retweet the information so that it reaches as broad and audience as possible. And, almost every social media site I visited has some element of missing persons.

One Facebook page that was created to assist people find loved ones is entitled: Joplin Tornado Citizen Checks : neighbors helping neighbors. This page was stood up less than 24 after the storm and already has almost 3000 “likes”.  The info tab does not give any description of who created the page, but under the content tab it states:

If you are looking for someone- please post ONE thread in the Discussions, with the name and general location of the person in the title. Others, please scroll the discussions to see if you have any information about people being searched for.

I’ve seen many, many postings from out of state family members asking about the elderly or those who live alone. We need a grassroots effort to help neighbors out. Please post where you are located, and someone can post on your comment if their family member lives nearby enough for you to check. We need to help each other!

Here is an incomplete list of hospitals that took St Johns patients and people injured in the tornado:

  • Integris Baptist Health Center in Miami – 918-542-6611
  • McCune Brooks Hospital in Carthage 417-358-8121
  • St. John’s Hospital in Springfield 417-820-2000
  • Via Christi in Pittsburg 620-231-6100
  • Barton County hospital in Lamar 417-681-5700
  • Labette County hospital in Parsons Ks. 620 421 4881
  • In addition, people have been found in Springdale and Kansas City hospitals.

4. Where to get/give help.

This function via social media is just gearing up (less than 24 hours after the storm), but with that said, there’s already quite a few lists of where to donate items and where to receive help. The State of Missouri itself is working to build a list of aid dropoff locations and sent out the following tweet:

 @mogov Working to build a list of aid dropoff locations for #Joplin, any help is appreciated:http://bit.ly/lzkrp9 #MOneeds#MOhaves

On Craiglist a Joplin Tornado Volunteers List has been created that has aggregated information about the storm to including useful Facebook pages and crowd sourced maps. This “Joplin Tornado How-to-help”  page set up by msnbc.com, however, seems to have an even better list of online resources.

One Facebook page entitled: Joplin, Mo Tornado Recovery is up and running and has almost 73,000 “likes”. I honestly can not tell what organization has put this page up, but the “about” page states:  “Find out how to help those suffering from the Joplin, MO tornado. To find disaster information, shelter information and referrals, please call 211…”  So far this page mostly has posts from well wishers as well as people interested in helping and asking about what items are needed and where to go, etc. There is also a mix of people mentioning loved ones that are missing.

A  crowdmap powered by the Ushahidi software has also already been stood up, and as of writing, reports include information about donated items as well as information regarding where to go to volunteer.  There are also reports of people missing. Here’s a sample:

  •  “Golden Paws Pet Resort is accepting animals that need shelter because their owners have lost their homes.” 
  • From Twitter: Meek’s #Joplin has Emergency Supplies (Water, Chainsaws, Tarps, ETC) available & is open. 
  • Volunteer reception site set up at Missouri Southern State University at the Beimdiek Recreation Center.
  • “Cat litter and pet carriers needed. Phone number…” 

5.  Recovering Lost Items (Pets, and in this case Hospital records!) 

One very interesting aspect to this disaster is the personal hospital record data that was strewn across 60 miles. One person on twitter indicated it was a HIPPA nightmare. It seems that people are being honest about wanting to return the found items and St. Johns will be using their facebook page to direct people on how to do that. As you can see in the item below, right now they are telling people to just “hang on to these items at this time”.

Lost pets are always an issue after a crisis and social media helps people find their lost furry or even feathery loved ones. The facebook page Animals Lost and Found from Joplin, MO, Tornado  has over 2000 “Likes” less than 24 hours after the crisis, and as of time of writing, has people posting to the site about once per minute. The site includes a lot of people posting that they can foster animals and that they are willing to help in other ways as well, and of course, there are some pics of missing and found animals. This site doesn’t seem to be hosted by the humane society or the ASPCA, but does appear to be modeled after the Animals Lost & Found from the Tornadoes in Alabama on 4/27/11 (which has over 32,000 likes).  I can’t help but wish people would post their credentials to these facebook sites, or at least write on the info tab who they are. Nonetheless, they are popular and they appear to be doing a good job.

One last item, that might be the most important of all–government agencies are reminding people that they should not self-deploy to the scene of this crisis: