by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

I originally posted this article on the on May 12, 2011.

On May 5, 2011, I attended the Understanding the Power of Social Media as a Communications Tool in the Aftermath of Disasters hearing at the U.S. Senate.  The hearing was divided into two parts:  the first was reserved for testimony by Craig Fugate, Administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the second was reserved for testimony by representatives from Google, the American Red Cross, and CrisisCommons.

Testimony from Craig Fugate

Mr. Fugate was clear on several points:  DHS is still in a learning phase on the best use of social media in the aftermath of disasters.  He also noted that the government should adapt to the ways that the public communicates and not vice versa.  He covered three major themes:  mobile, public input, and ubiquity.

Craig Fugate at the Senate Hearing on Social Media in the Aftermath of Disasters

Although the hearing was specifically about social media, Mr. Fugate mentioned “mobile” several times.  Using mobile devices during the most recent disasters has proved to be very valuable.  DHS has recently redesigned the mobile version of its website to accommodate users who access the site during an emergency.  “They are not interested in our mission statement or our org chart,” to paraphrase Mr. Fugate.

During an emergency the public needs authoritative information, directions on where to go, and guidance.  Accordingly, they have redesigned the mobile website to give the public the information they need on pages that require minimal bandwidth.  He also mentioned that DHS is working with the FCC to enable 911 texts via mobile devices.

In regard to social media, Mr. Fugate discussed the importance of input from the public.  Although a single tweet or comment may not be particularly valuable, aggregated information can provide a clear, real-time picture.  He has found that the public indeed has usable info and that their input should be considered as data points.  Collectively, they provide the earliest and best reports of severity and impact.  When paired with mobile devices, social media tools are more far-reaching than any other system.

One drawback to current DHS implementations of social media tools is the requirement that each person “opt-in” to the services.  For example, you must “follow” DHS on Twitter to receive their informative tweets.  To see escape route maps during a disaster that DHS has posted on Facebook, you must “Friend” DHS.

Finally, Mr. Fugate would like to see disaster assistance information spread to the public over as many channels as possible, whether they be high bandwidth, low bandwidth, or in person.  He hopes that disaster assistance messages will be ubiquitous and accessible no matter how the public chooses to receive information.

Testimony from Google, the American Red Cross, and CrisisCommons

The second half of the hearing was reserved for testimony by Shona Brown from Google, Suzy DeFrancis and Wendy Harman from the America Red Cross (ARC), and Heather Blanchard from CrisisCommons.  The two major themes about which all three organizations spoke were their use of social media and how the government can help them spread disaster assistance messages more easily.

Google has become very active providing disaster assistance information.  According to Ms. Brown, they have provided intelligence for more emergencies in the last four months than the previous year.  For example, they created their People Finder app that has helped people find loved ones during disasters that recently occurred in Japan, Haiti, and China.  They have also provided web infrastructure for turning crowdsourced data into informative maps.

Google would be interested in guidance from Congress on universal data formats.  They created the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF) after the crisis in Haiti.  They would like to see more standards like this and mentioned protocols such as CAP.

The American Red Cross has used social media and mobile devices for several years and has had great success raising awareness and donations during disasters.  ARC has made social media and mobile part of their standard operating procedures.  For example:

  • They texted information about cholera symptoms to registered mobile phones
  • The made requests for volunteers on their social media pages
  • They use Twitter to make requests for donations
  • They piloted a process for texting donations to those in need via registered mobile phones

ARC would also like to see more open and standardized data formats.  They warn that assistance agencies should not be tied to one technology and that they should continually monitor each technology’s effectiveness.  They also warn that the government should not try to regulate or control social media.  They should “allow it to be fluid.”

CrisisCommons connects people and resources to support crisis response.  They are active sharing information via several social media channels.  However, they have noted that there is often an overload of information during a crisis.  They suggest two recommendations for managing the flood of information that Emergency Managers receive:

  1. Implement filters that elevate disaster messages only when they have reached a certain threshold
  2. Deploy stand-by volunteers to manage social media messages who forward them to Emergency Managers when appropriate.

CrisisCommons would like Congress to make more real-time imagery available and to enable open and standardized data formats.  They also encourage all assistance agencies to share their lessons learned.

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