New First Responders: Twitter, Facebook Status

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- As the East Coast endured an earthquake and hurricane, many relied on social media last week to find out what was going on and keep tabs on loved ones. It was a luxury we didn't have a decade ago when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"After Sept. 11, 2001, the way people were communicating about missing loved ones was posting paper fliers all over New York City," says Jeannette Sutton, senior research scientist for the University of Colorad at Colorado Springs' Trauma, Health and Hazards Center. "Then, a couple of years later, with the tsunami in Asia, there were significant numbers of people who were missing. Instead of putting paper fliers all over the place, people were posting pictures on Flickr. You saw, very quickly, the movement of how people were sharing information, shifting from physical, direct communication to online communications."
Since 9/11, Twitter and Facebook have evolved into go-to resources following disasters.

Facebook was ramping up and growing dramatically in the ensuing years, Sutton adds. Twitter was launched in 2006 and by 2007 there was already research into how it was being used in disasters. A variety of crises littered the social media landscape in the months that followed.

Social media played a sizable role in the response to earthquakes in Haiti, Mexico City, Chile and Japan. When a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007, students using Facebook and other services were able to piece together a list of the victims well before it was made public.

During the Southern California wildfires that same year, residents didn't just use social media for updates; they offered on-the-ground reports that helped firefighters plan their course of action. Community-based reports and photos helped with cleanup after the BP ( BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Crisis after crisis, country by country, social media services such as Twitter and Facebook played an ever-evolving role. Twitter feeds including @hurricanes, @fema and @NewEarthquake offer specialized disaster-related information.

"It was just a landslide of adoption and use, not just among the public but among emergency managers as well," says Sutton, who has researched and written extensively about emergency response in the age of social media. "The public still relies on legacy media. But what we are seeing is the adoption of these new communication mechanisms -- and among those who are really high-tech users, it is where they are going for information when the power is out. When you can't turn on your TV or your computer, you get on your smartphone and follow the tweets of local people to find out what is happening. Those who rely on it are very reliant on it. It is amazing the amount of information that can flow through there if you are connected to the right people."

Two surveys released last week by the American Red Cross found that Americans "are relying more and more on social media, mobile technology and online news outlets to learn about ongoing disasters, seek help and share information about their well-being after emergencies."

"Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response," says Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross.

"It really hit me over the head during the Haiti earthquake when people were tweeting to the Red Cross and posting on our Facebook page that they had just gotten a text from a relative who was trapped under the rubble and they needed help," she adds. "We are not a first-response agency, so we don't have search and rescue teams and helicopters or things like that. But it weighed on me that this is a way when every system is down for people to contract each other. Maybe it is down sometimes too, but it is just another tool in the tool kit. People can organize amongst themselves, come together and make sure that everybody in the community is getting through whatever emergency is happening."

Among the Red Cross' survey findings (separated by general population respondents and those surveyed online) were that, after television and local radio, the Internet is the third-most popular way for people to gather emergency information.

Nearly one-fourth of the general population and 31% of the online population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe. Eighty percent of the general public and 69% of the online populations surveyed believe national emergency response organizations should monitor social media sites regularly to respond promptly.

For those who would post a request for help through social media, 39% of those polled online and 35% of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive in less than one hour.

"On an average day, the Red Cross is mentioned 3,000 times in the social media space," Harmon says. During a disaster, those mentions spike. During last week's hurricane, there were roughly 14,000 tweets a day related to them.

During the past year, the Red Cross has created a process to route life-threatening cries for help to local first responders and continues to work with emergency response colleagues on processes and protocols for taking action on incoming information during disasters.

"We try our best to get one on one with people as much as possible, but we are also looking at the big picture of what all these mentions mean for our response," Harman says.

The content of postings, blog entries and tweets isn't the only information being parsed by agencies and responders.

A recent report by FEMA detailed the value of the metadata sent with every Tweet. These data include the author's name, location and time a message was sent and can be used to assess specific, geographically relevant information.

Such "milling" could also be used by rescue personnel to reach victims who might be trapped and have only data and texting services to communicate with. Because data and text transmissions are separate from voice spectrums, they can sometimes be used via a smartphone even if traditional cellular coverage is interrupted.

The Next Step
On Sept. 10, 2010 -- one day before the anniversary of the Word Trade Center attack -- Microsoft ( MSFT) pulled the plug on a service named Microsoft Vine that aimed to be a communication tool in times of crisis, especially for people shut off from traditional lines of communication.

A company memo detailed the decision to scuttle the project: "The decision to discontinue future development of Microsoft Vine was not easily made. Multiple options were thoroughly explored and evaluated with rigor and in the end it was determined that Microsoft Vine is not sustainable as a stand-alone offering."

While that corporate giant couldn't find the right formula to bridge and adapt the wealth of data, individuals, groups and smaller companies are getting into the game.

"With the Haiti earthquake, we saw the rise of the volunteer tech communities, which are working alongside emergency managers, but in a volunteer capacity. They are actually monitoring that information, curating it, then mapping it. They may not be able to go to the disaster scene and help with directly serving the victims, but they can do what they do by looking through information that is available online," says Sutton of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In a simple example, monitors may pick up a series of unrelated tweets reporting the loss of drinking water. Armed with that data, responders can strategize and prioritize efforts.

Among the efforts are OpenStreetMap, Crisis Maps (various projects that mesh communication technologies with Web-based analysis), Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS and Give Forward.

Crisis Commons is a coalition of tech-savvy coders and hackers that, in its own words, "seeks to advance and support the use of open data and volunteer technology communities to catalyze innovation in crisis management and global development."

The tech company Nixle is looking to be the Facebook for government agencies. Its stated goal is to "get every local, state and federal agency to link into the Nixle network and provide the public with every type of information, from emergency notification to day-to-day information on traffic, missing persons and local events."

Google ( GOOG) has also joined the fray. Google Person Finder, a tracking and check-in service for disaster victims trying to locate friends and loved ones, was initially created by company volunteers in response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. It was later used during the aftermath of earthquakes in Chile, Yushu and Japan. Among its tools is the ability to share and view shelter resident lists through the Picasa photo sharing service.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is holding a competition for designing an emergency-related Facebook application.

ASPR is the office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for preparing for, responding to and recovering from the health effects of public health emergencies such as natural disasters, pandemics and bioterrorist events.

"When a disaster strikes the connections someone has to other people can make one of the most significant differences in how well they do during an event and how well they recover after. We would like to create a Facebook application that helps individuals be sure that those connections are in place so that they are better prepared for the next catastrophic event," the announcement said.

The agency is seeking an application "that makes it easy for people to create their own emergency support network and provides users with useful tools in preparing for and responding to emergencies."

Concerns and dilemmas
Although many government agencies, among them FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, endorse the use of social media -- a depository of the government's social media outreach can be found here -- that hasn't always been the case. Initially, calls to adopt and leverage the technology was met with skepticism and avoidance.

"Part of the resistance was related to terms of use," Sutton says. "There were some problems with the different kinds of platforms. Then there were also a lot of questions about who uses it and how. Who becomes the spokesperson? There were all sorts of policy questions. There are a lot of things people are still trying to assess and figure out how to do it effectively."

Even social media supporters admit to potential issues. Without an official "gatekeeper" can there be assurances information is accurate? How can hysteria be counteracted? Will some people use the opportunity of a crisis to perpetrate a hoax or spread false news? Will some victims exaggerate their plight? Could flash mobs of looters be rallied, as was the case recently amid rioting in London that may have been partly organized via Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerrys?

Help may come from the "Wikipedia effect" of hardcore experts scrutinizing information and correcting it, Sutton says.

"There are a few things we are careful with and that we haven't figured out yet," Harman says. "One is how do we verify the data and make sure that somebody is not tricking us? We have an experienced team that is good at recognizing online liars. But there is not a tried-and-true formula for figuring that out.

"We give most people the benefit of the doubt that they're not tricking us, but the verification is a big deal. We are also very careful not to be putting too much attention on this. Social media is meant to be supplementary -- it is not replacing anything the American Red Cross already does. There are lots of communities that aren't on Twitter, and those are sometimes the exact same ones we are trying to reach and help. We do our best to work around those issues until somebody brilliant comes up with a perfect solution."

While social media issues await resolution and refinement, Sutton sees recent events as a sea change in how we respond to crisis.

"I don't think social media is ever going to replace traditional media, but it certainly has to be a part of the communication strategy, especially among those who are in public safety agencies," she says. "Adopting new mechanisms to push information out is going to be very important. It is not going away and people without access to traditional media -- if they know about social media -- are going to be drawn to it to get information."

There's also likely a generational urgency. Recall the story of the 10- and 12-year-old girls trapped in a storm drain near Adelaide, Australia, in September 2009, who fortunately had cellphones and could contact the outside world for help.

They didn't call police, though. They used their phones to update their Facebook statuses.

Rescue personnel only knew because one of the girls' friends saw the updates.

"It seems absolutely crazy," firefighter Glenn Benham told the U.K.'s Daily Mail. "We could have come to their rescue much faster than relying on someone else being online, then replying to them, then calling us."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.


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