Could a “tweet” help save a life? It can, and it has. Although many people know social media as the realm of mostly lighthearted tweets and status updates, a growing contingent are seeing—and using—this technology as a tool in emergencies.
The research backs it up. A recent Red Cross survey asked 1,058 adults about their use of social media sites in emergency situations. It found that if they needed help and couldn’t reach 9-1-1, one in five would try to contact responders through a digital means such as e-mail, websites or social media. If web users knew of someone else who needed help, 44 percent would ask other people in their social network to contact authorities, 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency’s Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.
Addressing this trend, the American Red Cross recently hosted an Emergency Social Data Summit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. More than 150 people—leaders and experts in the government, social media, emergency response and the non-profit sectors—attended the full-day summit to discuss better ways to handle information that flows through the web during disasters.
Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern opened the summit with remarks, emphasizing that these issues are ones that could save lives. “I can’t think of anything more noble and exciting than that,” she said.
Empowered through Social Media Macon Phillips, special assistant to the President and director of new media for the White House, was a volunteer during Hurricane Katrina. Working in a Baton Rouge shelter, he saw children looking for their parents, and parents looking for their children, yet matching them was difficult. Multiple organizations and systems were having trouble coordinating and sharing information.
“It left me believing in the transformative power of the web, and how it could be used in crisis situations,” Phillips said.
He also commented on the empowering nature of social media and its ability to let one individual change reality. “One person can take a photo. One person can post a message…and it changes all our understanding of a situation immediately.” People have always wanted to help—and now they have the tools.
In the five years since Hurricane Katrina, social media has exploded, and its potential for use in crises was clear after the Haiti earthquake. Patrick Meier is a director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, which is a platform that unifies data gathered from multiple sources (SMS, e-mail, web) and distributes it onto a visual map or timeline. It was used after the earthquake to map actionable information, using the volunteer efforts of thousands of people around the world.
Melissa Eliott was heavily involved in the Haiti relief effort as a volunteer. Positioning herself as the “everyman,” Eliott emphasized the power that regular citizens have during emergencies. Using new media allowed Eliott and others to get people food, water and critical medical attention after the earthquake. “Every individual can make a difference by stepping up and using the tools available,” Eliott said.
A group of panelists discussed the technology behind social data and how they are being used in crises. Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, noted Facebook’s involvement after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, as well as after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, explaining how the platform is educating the public and letting them know how they can help.
Behind the Technology The rapid, exponential growth of social media—and the bells and whistles of new technology—are exciting. But Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reminded the audience of the ultimate goal.
“Do not focus on the technology, the tools or the gizmos," Fugate said. "Focus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Social media can empower the public to be part of the response, not as victims to be taken care of."
One thing is clear—the public’s use of social media in crises is growing. One of the many challenges this presents is the ability of first responders and governments to monitor this information and act on it in a timely manner.
In a June 2010 survey of the DomPrep40, an advisory board of disaster response practitioners and opinion leaders, nine out of 10 respondents said they are not staffed to monitor social media applications and respond in a major event. Furthermore, 90 percent of respondents also felt that the public expects some action based on social media applications.
Representatives from local, state and federal government cited their own experiences with social media, from local tweets and posts during “Snowmaggedon” to text messages sent in Haiti that resulted in Marines evacuating people who needed help.
Merni Fitzgerald, public affairs director for the Fairfax County, Va., government, discussed one of the challenges of this new media, remarking that while her county’s 9-1-1 systems operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no one is monitoring social media around the clock.
The social media, disaster response, non-profit and government leaders had a working lunch to brainstorm ways to better aggregate and respond to information on social media sites. Participants discussed how social media tools can be used to distribute preparedness information ahead of a disaster as well as tips on what people can do afterwards.
"We can help prevent emergencies from becoming disasters," said Brian Humphrey of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The first people to respond during a disaster are not usually trained responders or other professionals—frequently, they are simply bystanders. The enormous potential of social media is to leverage this fact to turn bystanders into lifesavers.