The Case for Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media Chapter One: Introduction

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The Case for Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media

Chapter One: Introduction

Social media and social technologies have altered communication patterns, particularly in times of disaster. The public has begun to rely on social media to share information during emergencies with family, friends and increasingly, with government and aid organizations who maintain social networking profiles. This has created an unexpected side effect—in which responding authorities and aid organizations are expected to be aware of and respond to emergency requests for help coming from such sources as Facebook, Twitter, and text messages. Additionally, there is a growing network of independent citizens who want to assist in times of emergency, and they are using social media tools to organize and deliver aid.

The social web is creating a fundamental shift in disaster response that is asking emergency managers, government agencies, and aid organizations to mix their time-honored expertise with real-time input from the public. As of today, most of us are not yet ready to collect, respond or react to this incoming social data in a timely manner. The use of publicly available data in times or places of crisis raises issues of authenticity, privacy, veracity and ownership. Responding to this challenge requires the collective input of government agencies, first responders, technology companies, public safety officials and the general public. Creating a process and system of response for this data is crucial for one compelling reason: we are seeing more and more headlines in which people have turned to social media channels as their first choice of communication during a crisis and we, as a response and aid community, must get ahead of this trend to remain effective.

Here are just a few examples of how this trend is playing out in the real world.

“Girls trapped in storm drain use Facebook to call for help…instead of calling emergency services.” This story from a 2009 UK newspaper, recounts the story of two Australian girls, aged 10 and 12, who updated their Facebook status as a cry for help when they found themselves in a precarious situation. Luckily for them, a schoolmate saw the status update and summoned aid.

Another example came when an Atlanta city councilman who encountered a woman in trouble on the street in 2009; because his cell phone battery was low, he turned to Twitter. “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson St. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet.” His actions are believed to have saved her life.

The frequency of stories like this accelerated into a virtual downpour after a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti in January, 2010. A Canadian woman trapped in rubble after the quake, was rescued after her text message for help reached Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department and was relayed back to Canadian authorities on the ground. The Canadian Foreign Affairs minister in his daily briefings told reporters “we know where this woman is, exactly.”

The challenge of a rescue effort in such a poor country, combined with its geographic challenges, unfolded in the media in dramatic stories of success and failure. Not all the cries for help from social media channels had happy endings. Regine Madhere, a 27-year-old Haitian woman who was trapped in the rubble of the Port au Prince supermarket in which she worked, sent a text message to her cousin in France because she believed she heard rescue workers leaving the area. The cousin then sent a tweet to the Red Cross Twitter account asking for help.

News organizations reported that multiple rescue workers from several countries worked round-the-clock for days to free Madhere and others, whose families kept vigil near the site. While a number of people were rescued from under the supermarket rubble, Madhere died before she, and many others, could be found.

These stories carry a common thread: a person in trouble turns to what they believe is the quickest way to get help. In these cases, and many more, they turned to their preferred new media tool.

This same social media technology has spawned numerous volunteer efforts in times of emergency, many of which have been instrumental in adding vital -- and accurate – information used to positive effect by first responders and decision makers. Beginning as early as September, 2001, Andy Carvin, senior social strategist at National Public Radio (NPR), put together a Yahoo Group within hours after the September 11 tragedy called “SEPT11INFO” and used volunteers spread throughout the city to make sense of rapidly changing information on threats, road conditions and personal safety. (Interview, July 22, 2010)

Another effort involved a team at Google, who created a solution now called “Person Finder” in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, which was quickly coded, launched and operational. Today’s technology offers endless possibilities and opportunities to aggregate data never before envisioned by our society.

The purpose of this paper is to examine how social data affects societal expectation of aid and its impact on emergency response, explore current technologies and individuals who have made successful inroads in recent disasters, develop a plan to address this across the emergency spectrum, and create awareness of the cultural shift that is influencing all areas of disaster response today.

Chapter Two: Social Media Has Changed News Gathering During Disaster Response

As mainstream news media have embraced social media tools and technology for news gathering, there is a growing perception and practice that first responders can and do use the data from Twitter, SMS text messages and other services for a targeted response in times of crisis.

An online survey of 1,058 adults conducted for the American Red Cross 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 email, 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.

The Red Cross survey found that Web users also have clear expectations about how first responders should be answering their requests. The survey showed that 69 percent said that emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites in order to quickly send help – and nearly half believe that response agencies are already doing that. And the survey respondents expected quick response to an online appeal for help – 74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post.

Journalists and concerned citizens are compounding this expectation with their quick and unencumbered response to crisis events. For instance, NPR’s Carvin took what he learned from the Yahoo Group he created after the 9/11 tragedy and expanded on it when a tsunami hit south Asia in 2004. Within hours, he launched a blog, a wiki, and used e-mail lists and the power of a blogging network called “Global Voices Online” to power an information network that was largely driven by private citizens around the world.

He, and others, have worked passionately since then to leverage technology options for events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav (Personal Interview, July 22, 2010). For instance, by the time Gustav came ashore at Cocodrie, Louisiana in 2008, Carvin had helped to put together an information network that was powered by more than 500 volunteers. They integrated Google maps with weather technology, listed evacuation routes and gave shelter locations.

“Emergency management agencies are so balkanized by their jurisdiction. Basically, what we were doing was an end run around these organizations. This data is available, let’s put it to use, using free resources. I had no budget for this and we managed to put together a whole range of projects,” Said Carvin in an interview on July 22, 2010.
By 2008, technology was better able to allow for more accurate and faster information gathering, with the unusual side effect that individuals using social media began to “scoop” mainstream news outlets when disasters occurred.
When an earthquake hit China in May, 2008, Robert Scoble, noted tech expert and customer advocate for Rackspace Hosting, reported the event on Twitter before the U.S. Geological Survey had recorded it on their web site and a full hour before the news hit CNN. How could news from 5,000 miles away travel so quickly? Scoble, who has more than 125,000 followers on Twitter and monitors its stream round-the-clock, was watching posts from friends in China and published a Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. about it within hours

Later that year, Twitter was hailed as a reputable source for breaking the news on the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which took the lives of more than 150. ZDNet author Jennifer Leggio said of the phenomenon: “This is where social media grows up.” The tech world was awash in news of how social media was evolving in this tragedy. Computerworld aggregated reports from all areas of technology reporting, including Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch:

“Forget CNN ... People are giving first hand reports of what they’re seeing directly on Twitter. Flickr is another important information resource…..Twitter isn’t the place for solid facts yet - the situation is way too disorganized. But it’s where the news is breaking,” wrote Arrington.

Similarly, social media led the way in coverage of violence and rioting in the lead-up to the Iranian elections in 2009. YouTube videos posted by eyewitnesses fueled a firestorm of outrage against human rights atrocities. Yet the authenticity of the video news reports could not be verified, which led to the inability to respond to potential injuries during the unrest.

By the time Haiti was rocked by a 7.0 earthquake in January, 2010, many of those stranded turned to blogs, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to report news and appeal for help. These tweets were posted on the day of the earthquake:

"the hospital in Jacmel also seriously damaged and turning people away" – Posted by Twitter user Melindayiti around 8 AM ET.

"Phones are working somewhat in Haiti. Can't get a hold of my family though." – Posted byTwitter user zabelbok around 8:30 AM ET.
"We are mobilizing resources and preparing plans to bring medical assistance to areas that have been hardest hit." – Posted around 1:30 AM by Twitter user PIH_Org, Partners in Health, Boston.

Excerpts from The Christian Science Monitor

Individuals also turned their own blogs into media outlets, reporting the situation on the ground:

“Thousands of people are currently trapped. To guess at a number would be like guessing at raindrops in the ocean. Precious lives hang in the balance. When pulled from the rubble there is no place to take them for care Haiti has an almost non existent medical care system for her people." ----Posted at the Troy Livesay blog, from Port-au-Prince.

Weather disasters are now routinely reported in social media. On the Twitter Journalism site, which was founded by Craig Kanalley, founder of Breaking Tweets and the Traffic and Trends Editor for Huffington Post, adverse weather and its effect is reported regularly. This sample shows how a social technology like Twitter assisted during the tornados which touched down in Mississippi, killing ten, in April, 2010.

by pixelbell (Mississippi) “Deadly tornado close to me today (Yazoo City, MS). Sad for the devastation. Very grateful for @EricLawWLBT being on Twitter with warnings.” 25 Apr

Underpinning the use of social media as a news gathering tool is a community mind-set in which the spirit of giving is highly important. This giving, combined with the maturation of the open source technologies, upon which many of these media are founded, has spawned a collaboration movement in which volunteers with a wide range of talents are ready, willing, and able to respond.

However, this rapid form of communication and its resulting motivated participants, while compelling, is unfocused and not directed to an entity that can actually make a useful response.

Chapter Three: The Crisis Collaboration Movement

Concurrent to the rise of social media and its inclusion into the newsgathering function, media services, individuals and organizations were taking collaboration to a new level. These groups weren’t just donating food and clothing, or taking a shift to work in a shelter during hurricane season, they were using the power of the Internet and its vast search and connective capabilities to make sense of information overload during crises and develop technology-based solutions to respond.

Media services used crowdsourcing to gather and disseminate data. Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon with powerful implications for crisis response. Defined as offering an open call for solutions to a problem, the concept has been successfully used for design challenges, communication and technology. Depending on the project, the “crowd” may or may not be compensated for their ideas. It is beginning to be used for news reporting, too. Spot.Us is an open source project in which the public can commission and participate with journalists on topics selected by the group. iReport is an initiative by CNN to add the voices of citizen journalists to news events. First visitors to the site see this disclaimer:

“Welcome to iReport, where people take part in the news with CNN. Your voice, together with other iReporters, helps shape how and what CNN covers everyday. So you know: iReport is the way people like you report the news. The stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post. Only ones marked 'CNN iReport' have been vetted by CNN.

A recent addition to aggregating mobile, social and location is Ushahidi, a platform that unifies data gathered from multiple sources (SMS, email, web) and distributes it onto a visual map or timeline. This technology was used to track the “Snowmaggedon” storm in Washington D.C. last winter as well as tracking the progress of voting in India and the movement of swine flu across a map area. Most notably, this technology is being used for post-crisis information in Haiti. It is an open-source platform, which allows developers to see behind the technology and build additional features upon it. The site is rich in documentation to allow users to customize it for specific tasks.

Proponents of this technology visualize how it can be used for humanitarian purposes. Patrick Philippe Meier, a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a director at Ushahidi, recently speculated on future use of this technology:

“In a way, by crisis mapping actionable information in near real-time and in the public domain, we are in effect trying to crowdsource response. This, by nature, is a distributed and decentralized process, hence difficult to track. The tracking challenge is further magnified when the actors in question are relief and aid organizations responding to a large disaster. As anyone who has worked in disaster response knows, communicating who is doing what, where and when is not easy. Responders don’t have the bandwidth to document which reports they’ve responded to on Ushahidi,” said Meier.

Individuals also launched collaboration efforts with great success. During Hurricane Katrina, Andy Carvin, who was mentioned earlier for citizen journalism, worked with a collaborative group of more than 3,000 volunteers to manually convert data that was being left on web sites about missing persons:

“People didn’t have the patience to wait to share that information and went to any web site to post comments. It was a mess when it came to structured data. A group of volunteers created an interchange format, similar to what the American Red Cross was using… and manually converted these to a data format and made it available,” said Carvin (July 22 interview).

Meanwhile, the “camp movement” began to emerge as a less structured and more open way to share information and learn about new technology. In the Washington D.C., area, numerous camps were started, each with a casual agenda, open speaker format and theme. Heather Blanchard, co-founder of Crisis Commons recalls a Transparency Camp, a Government 2.0 Camp, and finally, a Crisis Camp in September, 2009, which she organized with several others on the campus of George Washington University. It attracted 300 participants:

“As a result, the three search providers –Google, Yahoo and Microsoft were on a panel sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation. It was the first time they ever talked about what they were doing, as far as crisis response was concerned. Then they created Random Hacks of Kindness with World Bank,” said Blanchard (July 23 interview).

The “Random Hacks of Kindness” conference, held in November, 2009, in Mountain View, Calif., was a 48 hour event for software engineers who were ready to “hack for humanity” using their technical skills to devise community-based solutions. It was held concurrently in six countries; volunteers worked on coding solutions to problems and projects submitted to the group in advance. According to all reports, it was a huge success.

Blanchard, formerly with the Department of Homeland Security where she connected the department with new technology, was now part of a group called Crisis Commons, which had its genesis at the Crisis Camp event in 2009.

“A small band of idealists and innovators gathered to discuss the idea of a creating a common community through a mash-up of citizen volunteers, crisis response organizations, international humanitarian relief agencies, non-profits and the private sector. Within minutes, the Crisis Commons community was born and Crisis Camp events were created to unite communities, seek common ground and cultivate innovation in the use of technology for mobility and efficiency during crisis,” said Blanchard.

Crisis Camps have evolved into both live and virtual events, which have spread to numerous cities throughout the world. The group organizes through a wiki, which has tools to report and participate in a crisis, as well as resources to start Crisis Camp in new communities.

The Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010, put some of the collaborative efforts into high gear. This effort united developers, relief agencies and government departments to develop technologies to solve immediate needs. In this video, a participant talks about the day and the mass collaboration that occurred across six U.S. cities and eventually in the UK to help.

Eight working groups were formed to assist in different projects, including language translation, timelines, mobile applications, a crisis wiki, to name a few. Online media reported out on many facets of the effort, including a basic round up story ; a feature on how the day was organized, a Twitter feed, and a piece focused on the resulting joint sessions with a London Crisis Camp group. This was a highly social group, who used the opportunity to communicate all facets of the day in diverse mediums. The working document and blog that resulted from this event was featured as well as the applications developed as a result of the Crisis Camp Haiti event. One group developed a Creole dictionary and turned it into a mobile application, so any responder could use it from their mobile phone. Another group enabled standard street maps and overlaid information about current conditions; this also became a mobile application.

“Tweak the Tweet,” was developed for Haiti, too, using a new syntax developed with the hashtag indexing feature favored by Twitter users, but in a system making it easier for computers to read Tweets and extract data automatically based on the system. Kate Starbird, a PhD student at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado had started to develop the idea of using syntax in social media during the “Random Hacks of Kindness” conference in 2009 and moved the idea into reality for use in Haiti.

“We set up an account (on Twitter) and started tweeting the instructions and people volunteered to translate. We didn’t have back end of data collection down, but put it out there in the hopes that it would help….The idea is to learn how to leverage all this information in the wake of an event and make sense of it. We are studying Natural Language Processing and talking about (social media) and we don’t yet have the computational solutions for the 140 character medium so Tweak the Tweet is sort of a patch. Meanwhile, if people can Tweet in this format, then computers can make sense of it,” said Starbird (July 21 interview).

Figure An example of syntax developed for Tweak the Tweet by researcher Kate Starbird
Figure An example of how syntax became more useful with Tweak the Tweet

Another application that came out of Crisis Camp was We Have We Need which matches organizations with monetary donations through a simple web-based form using basic categories. Mass collaboration efforts continue through the Crisis Commons organization, which held the first International Crisis Congress in July, 2010, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the World Bank, indicating continued cooperation and maturation of the ideal of volunteerism in times of crisis. According to the Crisis Commons Web site:

This forum will explore lessons learned from CrisisCamp Haiti and CrisisCamp Chile and the opportunities and challenges of building a sustainable volunteer community whose mission is to use technology tools and expertise to aid communities in crisis.

Communities have come together often throughout our history to solve problems; this is another example where organizations from the public, private and nonprofit sector have cooperated.

Chapter Four: Learning from the Past, Building Intelligently in the Future

The challenge of communicating during emergencies is not new. In the past, similar challenges resulted in a number of solutions such as evolution of the 9-1-1 system and the Amber Alert that were considered cutting edge technology when they were adopted.

Early telephones relied on operator service to connect all calls. In an emergency, operators could assist in contacting help and send aid. As operator-enabled phone service gave way to automatic rotary dial telephones in the mid-1900s, telephone companies and customers alike were concerned about the gap in emergency response that losing operators created. The first solution was to teach the public to dial “0” for emergencies.

However, as phone service evolved technologically, telephone companies had to find a new solution. By the 1960s, countries worldwide had begun using three-digit sequences for routing emergency calls through an automated system. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended a singular number be adopted nationwide. On February 16, 1968, two elected officials made the first 9-1-1 call in Haleyville, Alabama. The independent Alabama Telephone Company designed this first service, and later that year AT&T developed the process of routing calls to a central location for emergency dispatch.

Today, 98 percent of locations in the United States and Canada are linked to a central dispatch system so that when someone dials 9-1-1 from any phone, they will be automatically linked to an agency –whether it’s police, fire, or ambulance – which can assess the problem and dispatch help.

In 2005, the FCC required wireless and Voice Over Internet Protocol) VoIP providers to supply emergency 9-1-1 calling capabilities to their customers. Recently, the state of New Hampshire began using an enhanced system that coordinates additional data during call generation. The 9-1-1 dispatchers might see information about medical conditions or hazardous materials, which can aid in targeting the response. The AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert system demonstrates the maturation of information that mixes public and emergency management data.

Named for Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Dallas in 1996, the program has been adopted by law enforcement, broadcasters, transportation officials, the wireless industry, trucking carriers, retail outlets and many others. The program has formal, but nimble guidelines and criteria for issuing alerts and is now used in all 50 states. In 2003, the Department of Justice announced that it had recovered its 100th child because of the program.

The development of both of these initiatives is an encouraging sign that we can solve the interoperability and voluntary nature of emergency social data in the future, particularly as Americans begin to depend on mobile technology for more than just phone calls on the go.

Chapter Five: Mobile Technology and Location Based Services on the Rise

According to the Pew Internet Life Mobile Access Report, 40 percent of American adults use the Internet, email or instant messaging on a mobile phone (up from the 32 percent in 2009). Also, 72 percent of cell phone owners use their phones for text messages, up from 65 percent last year. Most importantly for the issue of social data, 23 percent have used their phone to access a social networking site, with 48 percent of 18 to 24 year olds doing this.

According to’s Mobile Shopping Behavior Survey, 58 percent of Americans online own a Web-enabled mobile phone. Similar to the Pew study, 22 percent say they have used the phone to access a social network. This number is expected to rise, with 4G technology being used by Sprint and Clear, which runs on an open-source technology called WiMax, and provides connections that are as fast as wired connections.

Other wireless carriers, such as AT&T, are working on rolling out a proprietary high-speed network called LTE in 2011. Wireless is becoming mature enough, in many cases, to supplant wired connections.

According to the analyst firm Gartner, by 2011, more than 85 percent of handsets shipped globally will include some form of browser. 

18-24 years

25-34 years

35-44 years

55+ years





Figure Cell Phone Ownership by Age: Source: Pricegrabber Survey

While Facebook and Twitter gain common use in social integration, the addition of geolocation technology is maturing rapidly with the introduction of location based services (LBS) like Foursquare, Gowalla and Whrrl. These applications are part social conversation and part game. Participants “check-in” to popular spots as they shop, work and eat and can earn badges for frequency or novelty as well as leave tips and gifts for others using the service. Similar to many social tools, influence and novelty is built by follower/following relationships.

Another example is CheckinLive, an application for the iPhone. It uses Google Maps combined with real-time posts that integrate with what the user’s “friends” are doing and where they are located. The culture of social media is categorized by a collaborative style, in which sharing includes thoughts, opinions AND location. Earlier versions of these types of technologies included Loopt andBrightKite.

What began with simple GPS use for driving directions and mapping platforms such as Mapquest and Google Maps has evolved into use as an entertainment and recommendation vehicle with widespread use. There are opportunities to use this integration concept of mobile, social and geography to leverage the “who-what-where-when” of crisis response in a useful and focused manner. While not yet appropriate for crisis response, the underpinnings of the technology provide a road map for adaptability.

According to Gartner, by the end of 2011, more than 75 percent of hand-held devices will include a GPS. Wifi and cell ID systems will remain important in situations where GPS is unavailable or unreliable.

With so much new technology at the fingertips of consumers, a more organized form of response could aid future disaster efforts.

Chapter Six: Devising a Solution

Early adopters and enthusiastic users of social technologies have identified disparate opportunities to unify efforts during a crisis. These groups of people want to help and have inaugurated events, web sites or services to make a difference in recent crises. Concurrently, organizations who are first responders are recognizing that the need to use and adapt this technology as part of disaster response is evolving rapidly.

In 2009, the federal government identified a need for collaboration and transferability of information for disaster response and announced an initiative called Virtual USA. This press release from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) describes the need:

Our first responders need interoperable tools to make accurate and timely decisions during emergencies. Virtual USA makes it possible for new and existing technologies to work together seamlessly during disaster response and recovery and gives the public an opportunity to contribute information in real-time to support the efforts of police officers, firefighters and other emergency management officials.

The point of the effort was to link what were considered “disparate tools and technologies” to share location and status of infrastructure items such as power and water lines, traffic conditions and evacuation routes among federal, state, local and tribal governments. Earlier that year, the Homeland Security Blog posted about a model used to develop the national program, based on successful efforts to integrate data in Alabama and Virginia. The key to success, was a common or standard language, but not necessarily dependent on all parties using the same delivery platform.

Researchers examining the intersection of information aggregation in emergencies recently identified an understudied aspect of emergency management. This includes defining roles which should be played by various organizations:

However, in contrast to how emergency management is often understood, it aims to push beyond the idea of monitoring on-line activity, and instead focuses on an understudied but critical aspect of mass emergency response—the needs and roles of members of the public. By viewing the citizenry as a powerful, self-organizing, and collectively intelligent force, information and communication technology can play a transformational role in crisis.

Published by the British Informatics Society Ltd. In the proceedings of ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science 2010, by Palin, Anderson, et al.

Many governmental agencies have incorporated social data into their information gathering and their operational responses in an emergency, even believing that it is their responsibility to do so. Fairfax County, VA, Director of Public Affairs Merni Fitzgerald believes social data should be gathered and shared “because the response to the disaster is a shared responsibility. It should be handled the same way information from other sources should be handled.”

In a recent interview, Fitzgerald referenced how many first responders use national incident management protocols in which roles are pre-assigned and followed, using the model of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). “If it’s information that needs to get to people on the scene, we liaise with the field Public Information Officer.” If information can help operationally, information is shared with the incident commander.

Another agency which has elevated the use of social data in its day-to-day operations is the Los Angeles Fire Department. Brian Humphrey, Public Information Officer for the department and a 25-year veteran says:

People want to help in a crisis and the currency is not dollars, it’s information. We believe that there can and should be a social media layer of data and we’re eager to incorporate those data for our own fact checking. Every citizen is a communicator or contributor and we will benefit greatly from those initiatives (Aug. 1 interview).

A transformational role in crisis is highly desired by NGOs and crisis collaboration groups as well; they believe they can contribute to the solution in a myriad of ways. In recent crisis efforts, some volunteer groups believed that their role was marginal.

Melissa Elliot, a marketing professional in Canada, found herself reaching out to help after the earthquake in Haiti. Through Twitter, she began to identify people with working cell phones and found donors outside the country to pay for minutes to keep their cell phones active. As a result, those on the ground could keep funneling information and reports out of the severely damaged country. She turned to organizations like the American Red Cross for help.

It seemed to me in this situation that they didn’t really rely on any local organization for information. Thousands of people were on the ground, wanting to help… the only way the ARC was moving was through their own means as opposed to using local means. I know that’s changed now. There’s no reason why that couldn’t happen from day one (July 22 interview).

Certainly the disaster in Haiti exacerbated the issue. Wendy Harman, Director of Social Media for the American Red Cross, said:

As an organization dedicated to mass care, we’ve been watching the growth of social media use during times of crisis and want to figure out a way to turn the sometimes random path of communication into an organized response funnel.  During the earthquake in Haiti this year, it became painfully obvious that this social data needs to be systematized for a better solution.  While our 911 system has served us well, how can we adapt or adopt in the era of widespread mobile technology? (July 27 interview)

Currently, nine out of ten respondents to a June 2010 survey of the DomPrep40, an advisory board of disaster response practitioners and opinion leaders who focus primarily on all-hazard preparedness as well as response and recovery operations, 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.

“I am particularly concerned over how social media create an expectation for expressing need when they become the surrogate ‘9-1-1’ when regular services, voice communications, are disrupted by a disaster,” says Joseph C. Becker, senior vice president of disaster services at the American Red Cross and a DomPrep40 member.

It’s likely any coordinated effort will be supported with so many organizations identifying the aggregation of data as important in future efforts. The next step is to consider the amount of data that can be accumulated in a disaster and consider the means by which it would be collected, shared and guarded.
Chapter Seven: The Challenge of the Data Funnel

It seems obvious that data collected could be automatically used to respond to disasters, but the issue is far more complicated. Many NGO’s and governmental organizations operate within strict guidelines of confidentiality or with reporting relationships that become entangled if data is broadcast. Juxtapose that with widespread assumptions in social media circles that no information is sacred, and a pattern of cross purposes begins to emerge among organizations poised to help, yet impatient with response rates in times of crisis.

While most experts interviewed for this paper agreed that data collection and the technological underpinnings of how it’s collected should be an open source effort, the issues of aggregating, triage and sharing of the data involves more challenges.

The volunteers involved in aggregating and sharing data during the Haiti effort recall that one challenge was the manual nature of analyzing data. Heather Blanchard, Melissa Elliot, Kate Starbird and Patrick Philippe Meier all remember looking at thousands of text messages, Tweets and other information that was reviewed, filtered, passed along or acted upon in some way. Even with emerging technological platforms, humans still need to be involved in data collection and processing.

Another difficulty is the different ways that social networking tools collect their data. Says Starbird, whose PhD work is focusing on social data during disasters:

Each one involves different technology to aggregate and collect data.  Facebook doesn’t allow outsiders to collect their private data (status updates), so as a researcher it’s very hard. You can’t get to the data.  Twitter is all searchable and almost all public.  Our research department at the University of Colorado is trying to develop tools that aggregate and do sense-making of data (July 21 interview).

Starbird says that the “Tweak the Tweet” syntax she helped develop during the crisis in Haiti is really just a bandage until computers can catch up with natural language processing, which will help develop additional technologies for this purpose.

Google rolled out an application called Person Finder in response to the earthquake in Haiti (which has been used in subsequent disasters). It uses open source technology and crowdsourced information that can be shared broadly. According to Dr. Roni Zeiger, chief health strategist at Google, Person Finder is an open system which can be used by anyone, and allows large numbers of people to communicate in a crisis. Their motive is to enable broader crisis communication, while allowing relief workers to do what they do best.

So whether it’s information about people that may be missing and loved ones that are trying to find them, or information about public resources that are available or not available because they’ve been damaged, we think that relief work can happen more quickly and more effectively if this kind of information is made available and updated in an open and transparent way (July 29 interview).

Ushahidi developers used their technology to aggregate data after the Haiti earthquake, and have since been able to apply some automation to data accumulation using layers and human filtering. This means the next crisis might not need 200 volunteers reviewing data round-the-clock and making decisions based on that data. The tool, called Swift River, is currently being used in small instances.

None of us claim that this will be a silver bullet, but what it will do is make the triangulation of User Generated Content (UGC)and mainstream content more efficient than ever before. Right now, you have users, journalists, human rights groups, taking 80% of their time collecting information and 20% of their time analyzing it. We want to switch that percentage around to 20% of their time collecting information and 80% analyzing it (July 28 interview).

Large numbers of organizations are collecting and acting on data during crises; volunteers like Blanchard see this as unnecessary double coverage. She notes that both Person Finder and the American Red Cross were using databases to collect information on missing persons after Haiti and wonders if there are opportunities to cooperate. “Perhaps we can broker that relationship and bring people to the table in some sort of mutual relationship.” Elliott shared a similar frustration related to comparing databases and information as a Haiti volunteer.

Not only is the collection of data an opportunity and a challenge, the nature of the data highlights additional challenges in its use during crisis situations.

Chapter Eight: Authenticity and Privacy Issues

The unfiltered nature of social networking sites has led to many anecdotal questions about authenticity of data. The ability to impersonate someone or to fake a genuine need was an early concern on some social sites. But as these technologies have become more sophisticated, it’s easy to see their use in capturing trends. First responders who are currently using social data say it is no more or less useful than other ways they collect information.

Says Fairfax’s Fitzgerald, the evolution of managing any crisis includes data verification:

Within the first hour (of any emergency) a lot of information is incorrect. Eyewitnesses only see from their point of view. And this was true before social media. … In the past, it would come in through other means…now we get information through Tweeting. We need to be monitoring, both traditional and social media. We have to be able to see it in order to get that information. It’s not any more or less confirmed information (than in the past), it’s the same info we are getting from people on the ground (July 29 interview).

The key for first responders is to establish patterns and trends within the framework of their incident management systems. The Los Angeles Fire Department had an early instance when using social data was quite reliable. In May, 2007, during a series of wildfires in the Griffith Park area, Humphrey was able to add critical information about the nature of the flames by reaching out on Twitter to residents who had an alternate point of view than the firefighters.

We saw people posting information about their circumstances at the time of the event. We made contact with people and sent them a DM (direct message) and asked them to call me…..and they did. I said ‘you’re my eyes and my ears.’ They were on the far side of the fire and they were able to describe the fire behavior enough that we were able to make some decisions… minutes before firefighters and paramedics got there (Aug 1 interview).

One of Starbird’s research questions is how to look at someone’s reputation with some of the computer monitoring tools to check authenticity.

Human filters are the best we’re going to get for now. Things like callback numbers, verifying numbers, direct contact and talking to (the data providers). That’s going to take people monitoring them and it ends up being human power-heavy and data-heavy (July 21 interview).

For many organizations, the concern with large volumes of data is privacy. Patrick Philippe Meier recalls how this issue manifested itself during the Ushahidi effort for Haiti and believes that privacy issues need to be solved before the next disaster.

Early on, we were getting reports of orphans and we were mapping that and then we found out they were getting kidnapped and we immediately got that info off the map and used a private database to keep track of that information to share with responders we were in touch with….we have to think about this very, very seriously. We couldn’t sort all these issues out in the middle of a disaster (July 28 interview).

Prudent government organizations are using disclaimers and attribution to address privacy issues on social media sites. One example is the Fairfax County Facebook page which discourages people from posting certain kinds of information. Person Finder contains this disclaimer: “PLEASE NOTE: All data entered will be available to the public and viewable and usable by anyone. Google does not review or verify the accuracy of this data.” The company also encourages the data contributor to add information so that authenticity can be verified. The LAFD blog, Facebook page and Twitter accounts direct contributors to utilize private channels.

The challenge remains: is it okay to compromise someone’s privacy during a disaster? And, whose job is it to guard privacy during a crisis?

Chapter Nine: The Challenge of Readiness

Our nation, communities and the public have come to rely on specific groups to assist in times of disaster, but today’s communications environment with its new expectations has changed the game, not just for first responders, but also for aid organizations and for the public. The challenge of readiness goes far beyond stocking up on supplies and having an evacuation plan. It’s also about who communicates in a crisis and how the communication takes place. One research group believes this to be a new blueprint:

Innovation for emergencies could greatly benefit by reframing disaster response as a set of socially-distributed information activities that support powerful, parallel, socio-technical processing of problems in times of change and disruption. Good quality information and meta-information that indicates accuracy and trustworthiness is what people need to make local decisions, to gain situational awareness and build resilience in the face of threat.

Published by the British Informatics Society Ltd. In the proceedings of ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science 2010, by Palin, Anderson, et al.

John Solomon, a journalist and author of In Case of Emergency, Read Blog, advocates that any solution needs to get to the very basics, at least where the general population is concerned.  

He believes that there is a need to redefine ‘what is preparedness?’ for citizens in the era of social technology. Solomon notes, for example, that many state and local emergency management websites still do not even include a mobile phone/PDA and extra power source as part of their recommended emergency supplies list.


He urges more public briefings and even rehearsals on social technology so people from all aspects of the community will know what to do and where to look when it comes to getting and giving information and communicating with family and friends in crisis. “So you’ve got all these tools, but do you know to use them in an emergency?” said Solomon in a recent interview.

Crisis Commons’ Heather Blanchard takes it one step further, by looking at communication resources during disasters. “Currently a shelter does not have to have communications for shelter residents. All it is a roof and medical care. .. I would argue that communications are fundamental and you want people to get their lives back together.”
Further, Blanchard advocates that to allow people to get back to their networks, via computers in shelters and at government service centers would go a long way to helping people reconnect after a disaster. Others have suggested the idea that responding organizations create a level of technology volunteers who can assist organizations like the Red Cross in enabling shelter technology and communication.
Certainly developing syntax, standards and protocols before the next disaster can assist any type of collection and sharing effort. Participants of recent disaster sharing events also share a concern that first responders, while dabbling in social media, are taking in information, but not necessarily using it to provide a better picture or a more focused operational response.
“There’s a sense by some in government that social media is just there to distribute information,” says Solomon, the readiness blogger. “That’s fine, but obviously the fact that it’s interactive is not taking advantage of its potential. The question is how do authorities do a better job of using it as two way communication?”

Can we be as visionary as the disaster information researchers who advocate “mechanisms for leveraging the collective intelligence of the public are accelerated in a systematic fashion, and with serious consideration to ethics, the practical aspects of emergency management, and human needs” (Published by the British Informatics Society Ltd. In the proceedings of ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science 2010, by Palin, Anderson, et al) or will we continue to hobble along in communications silos?

LAFD’s Humphrey summarizes the challenge likes this:

We have this ability to change the way we do business. Too often we invest in the next shiny thing, but after every crisis, every leader says three things….1. You guys did a great job. 2. We learned a lot of lessons. 3. We had a little problem with communication. Interoperability requires us to have a common operating picture, a common operating language and genuinely strategic communication. (Aug. 1. Interview)

“The question I want us to get to,” says Wendy Harman of the Red Cross, “is whether the local Emergency Operations Center is ready to access that data. Do they have the tools and can they identify that these are their true needs?

“In my mind, the solution I’d like to see is for us to not just jump in and see how to take social data into account, but to study whether it can make us more efficient or better able to respond in disasters,” Harman continued. “The expectations people have of us are only going to grow. We have no choice but to work toward an open source, interoperable solution. So we can create a really nimble solution, so we can be flexible and grow with the tools. “

These are the opportunities, challenges and concerns which will form the basis of the Emergency Social Data Summit on August 12 at the Headquarters of the American Red Cross in Washington D.C. Are you ready?
Heather Blanchard

Heather Blanchard is a co-founder of CrisisCommons, a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis. She spent seven years at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. and has been involved in several disaster relief efforts, including Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, flooding in the Midwestern states and the earthquake in Haiti. She has a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Radford University.

Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin is senior strategist on National Public Radio’s (NPR) Social Media desk. He was the founding editor of the Digital Divide Network, a community of more than 10,000 online activists in 140 countries. He has pioneered numerous volunteer and collaborative efforts in disasters including September 11, Hurricane Katrina and the Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Melissa Elliott Whitaker

Melissa Elliott Whitaker is a partner and executive producer at Blackbox Communications Inc., a Toronto, Ontario, based firm. She became intensely involved in the worldwide Haiti relief effort as a volunteer, which she categorizes as a life-changing experience for her. She recently traveled to Haiti to become part of the rebuilding effort.

Merni Fitzgerald

Merni Fitzgerald is Public Affairs Director for the Fairfax, Virginia, County government and serves as the official county spokesperson. She coordinates internal and external emergency communication efforts, a countywide public information program and liaisons with metropolitan news media, community groups and others concerning county activities. Fitzgerald holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from James Madison University and a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University.

Wendy Harman

Wendy Harman is director of social media for the American Red Cross National Headquarters, creating and executing all social media strategy to fulfill the mission of the organization. She interacts with its 686 Red Cross chapters, 36 blood regions, 700,000 volunteers, millions of donors and the public to become more efficient and raise awareness about preventing, preparing for and responding to emergencies..She has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Psychology from Emory College and a Master’s degree from Northeastern University School of Law. Prior to her current position, she worked in the music industry.

Brian Humphrey

Brian Humphrey has been with the Los Angeles Fire Department since 1985, serving on the front line of countless storms, conflagrations and disasters. As Public Information Officer for the department, he deals firsthand with all aspects of print, radio, television and internet journalism. He travels extensively throughout North America as a subject matter expert on emerging technologies for public safety and homeland security.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Patrick Meier is the Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi and the co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers. He was previously the co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Patrick has an MA in International Affairs from Columbia University and is completing his PhD at The Fletcher School/Tufts University. He is also a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at Stanford University and an alumni of the Sante Fe Institute's (SFI) Complex Systems Summer School.

Catharine Starbird

Kate Starbird is a PhD student at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder, researching in the field human-computer interaction (HCI). She is currently a member of Project EPIC (Empowering the Public with Information during Crises), a multi-site research project, led by Professor Leysia Palen at CU, which studies the use of social media during disasters. In 2009, she received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) award to support her research.

John Solomon

John D. Solomon writes a blog on citizen preparedness, In Case Of Emergency, Read Blog. Solomon is a member of New York City's Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program and is a volunteer with the American Red Cross of Greater New York. He is an Adjunct Instructor in Emergency Medicine at the State University of New York College of Medicine. He has also reported on homeland security and disaster preparedness for NPR, The Washington Post and USA Today. 

Dr. Roni Zeiger

Dr. Roni Zeiger is Chief Health Strategist at Google; his work includes health-related search, Google Flu Trends and Google Crisis Response.  He was a primary care physician and served as a Clinical Instructor of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.  Dr. Zeiger received his MD from Stanford and completed his residency at the University of California, San Francisco.  He was a fellow in medical informatics at Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, California. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Society for Participatory Medicine.

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