SMEMChat: Using Social Media to Navigate Emergencies

by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

I originally posted this article on the AWAREForum.org on February 3, 2012.

Who and What is SMEMChat

If you work in the Emergency Management field and have an interest in social media, you may have run across SMEMChat (Social Media and Emergency Management Chat) on Twitter.  Every Friday, from 12:30 to 1:30pm EST, Twitter users who are interested in emergency management follow tweets that contain the hashtag #smemchat.  AWARE readers will be interested in the lively conversations relating to the intersection of emergency management and social media.  Chats are open to anyone to contribute to or to just watch.

Over the last year I have learned a lot about emergency management and social media from a wide range of participants, such as public safety executives, social media strategists, emergency managers, and crisis communications experts.  I have also found that most of the participants adhere to several worthy and implicit tenets regarding the use of social media during an emergency:

  • Do the most good for the most people with available resources
  • Do no harm
  • Everything we do introduces possibility of liability – doing the right thing has to take precedence over liability avoidance
  • Work within a short time-frame to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

Taking part in a SMEMChat is great for anyone interested in experiencing the flood of Twitter traffic that spikes with an event.  There’s nothing like watching the stream of tweets flow by that are disjointed, sometimes cryptic, and full of acronyms and abbreviations.  Yet, I always find that a true exchange of information takes place and that I can follow the conversation – if I let go and enjoy the ride!

The SMEMWater Problem Solving Exercise

To give SMEMChat followers a taste of what it’s truly like to crowdsource solutions to a problem using social media, Cheryl Bledsoe at sm4em.org created the SMEMWater exercise:  “an exercise of social media…to see how quickly a ‘crowd of people’ can creatively contribute to solving a problem.”  It was set up as a real world problem, as opposed to a traditional exercise scenario like a simulated earthquake, to ensure that participants authentically engaged.  The mission:  to figure out how to positively support Charity: Water through social media actions. Charity: Water is a non-profit organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.

Participants were charged with spreading the word about Charity: Water through any social media channel they wanted and reporting back to the group by tweeting their action and including the #smemchat hashtag.  At 12:30 the floodgates opened and the tweets poured in.  Participants reported that they had shared links on Facebook, posted videos to YouTube, connected with members of LinkedIn, created circles on Google+, followed blogs, and participated in the Charitii game in order to advance awareness of Charity: Water.

After the exercise, the SMEMChat participants debriefed and discussed issues and lessons learned that emerged.  I found that many others had the similar experience to me:   it was exciting; it was hard to keep up; and I wished that I had people to help me manage and interpret the torrent of information.

Here are my takeaways from the experience.:

1. Tools are necessary to make sense of the deluge of information

The SMEMWater exercise was a great analog for following a more serious event like an emergency.  Beyond following the reports from the participants on Twitter, I wanted to see how they were using different social media to share information about Charity: Water.

The first big problem I encountered was not being able to track all of the social media channels at once.  When a true emergency strikes, emergency managers and first responders may agree in advance as to what social media tool they will use.  But the public won’t.  They will use whatever tool they are most comfortable with.  During SMEMWater, it was all I could do to follow the various Twitter streams let alone track other social media channels that participants decided to use.

Even when I had the raw data rolling down my screen it didn’t mean I could make sense of the information or visualize where the swells of chatter were occurring.  As in any stream of social media information, only some of the information is relevant at a given moment and finding the gems among the rubble is paramount.

Several of my fellow participants agreed and recommended online tools that monitor various social media channels and track specific keywords.  Tools like Ushahidi’s SwiftRiver* help “make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time.”  You can learn more in the Ushahidi article I wrote in June.  Other recommended tools include*:

  • Pier Systems
  • Twylah
  • Curated.by
  • Storify
  • Scoop.it
  • Redux

These tools aggregate data from the various social media channels and some even provide analysis of the information, discover relationships, and identify trends.  The need for this kind of service is growing:  the FBI is currently looking for software that will “provide an automated search and scrape capability for social networking sites and open source news sites for breaking events, crisis and threats that meet the search parameters/keywords defined by FBI/SIOC.”

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to use robust online tools to sift through and categorize the data.  Even basic tools that organize related tweets from a hashtag into several “conversations” would make a big difference.

2. “Smart crowdsourcing”: Let the community curate information for you

Nevertheless, tools alone cannot provide an objective interpretation of the information that a person can.  Automated semantic analysis is still quite imperfect.  In an emergency situation where social media messages are full of abbreviations, misspellings, and local colloquialisms, the odds that an online tool can interpret a message’s full meaning drop even further.

Several times during SMEMWater I had to stop and research an acronym and just because I stopped it didn’t mean that the stream of messages stopped too.  It was easy to get behind and miss a key piece of information.  Furthermore, with my attention on multiple message streams at the same time, it was difficult to fully and effectively follow any single “conversation”.

I would have had greater success if I had had help monitoring different social media channels.  This would be true in a real emergency.  A team that can efficiently monitor various relevant channels can provide the attention that each one requires.  This entails finding and following the ad hoc hashtags, groups, or blogs that the public has created in response to the emergency and following the conversations where they lead.

Forming a social media monitoring team is not as simple as assigning people to various social media channels.  Each emergency is unique and may require teams that organically evolve with the social media traffic especially in a lengthy and dynamic situation such as a wild fire.

Ideally, teams should comprise emergency managers, trusted crisis volunteers familiar with social media, and local volunteers knowledgeable about the area.  The crisis volunteers organize the local volunteers and create teams to monitor, organize, and interpret the social media channels where needed.  The crisis volunteers then curate the reports from the local volunteers and submit them to emergency managers as required.  For the purposes of gathering intelligence and situational awareness, this process becomes a kind of “smart crowdsourcing.”

3. Human interpretation of data is key

Evolution of the flood of wild, unstructured information into manageable, structured insight.

During SMEMWater I often found that I was reading the same bit of information, only slightly reworded.  The risk of reading repeated messages is that those messages tend to become “louder” and may seem more important than they really are.  As I quickly scanned the message, I wasn’t sure whether the participant who reposted the message was just endorsing what the previous participant had posted, or that he or she had also taken a similar action.  In an emergency, 50 people may tweet about a relatively small sub-crisis when only one person might post about a much bigger one.

Social Media volunteers can provide that extra human interpretation that is so valuable to emergency managers.  They can discern the difference between a vocal minority and the genuine swell of a crisis.  They can sift through retweets and outliers to find those true gems of information.  They can formulate the true patterns and trends in the data.  I believe crisis volunteers who are experts in social media are the missing intermediaries between unrestrained, crowdsourced sound bites and well curated information that can contribute to a situation report.

Where do these crisis volunteers come from?  Many emerged during major crises such as the Haiti and Japan earthquakes.  However, they did not always have the experience to curate the data in ways that emergency managers need.  Participants on SMEMChat have suggested enlisting emergency managers from areas outside of a crisis that are not managing an emergency of their own.  Using the online tools, they can rally the local volunteers and curate the information the volunteers provide.

4. As always, prepare in advance

During the SMEMWater debrief, participants shared some steps that emergency managers can take to facilitate the use of social media during an emergency:

  • Learn how to use some of the social media monitoring tools.
  • Create pre-populated and pre-approved messages that fit the various social media channels.  For example, ensure all tweets are less than 120 characters, so followers have the other 20 characters for their retweet message.
  • Create and advertise the process for forming a hashtag.  For example, all emergency tweets in Washington DC might start with #EMDCxxx (Emergency Management DC [unique crisis id])
  • Research which social media channels have received the most traffic during a past emergency and create a presence on those channels.  These channels can be used to provide emergency contact information and instructions.
  • Form relationships with key social media users in the community who can share messages broadly.
  • Form relationships with other emergency management teams who can curate social media messages during a crisis.

For more information about using social media during a crisis, please take a look at Top Ten Considerations for Emergency Management Organizations Utilizing Social Media by  Kim Stephens and Launching a Social Command Center (Without The Center) by David Armano.

SMEMWater was a terrific experience and I commend all of the participants and the organizers at sm4em.org.  I encourage anyone interested in this topic to partake in the next event and enjoy the rush.

PS.  Please pardon all of the water allusions, but I hope it will inspire you to take a moment and look at the Charity: Water website.

* AWARE does not endorse or recommend any specific products.  They are listed here for informational purposes only.

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