Friday, September 16, 2011

Emergency brings out ESA on Twitter in Canberra - too late?

This morning, like many Canberra residents, I awoke to the news of the Mitchell fire.

Like most in the digital age (who weren't close enough to hear explosions), I learnt about it by reading news online, and hopped straight on Twitter to find the latest updates.

I was very glad (and surprised) to find that the ACT Government's Emergency Services Department had a twitter account. They had been providing official advice for the last half an hour from @ACT_ESA. I've added it to my list of government twitter accounts (yes I was unaware of it before).

I was not happy to see that while they'd been on Twitter since May, they'd not told anyone about the account and had only tweeted twice previously, saying 'coming soon' on both occasions.

Their Twitter was not listed or referenced on their website or on any official ACT government emergency documentation. It was not listed on, or referenced in any of the official emergency announcements from the ACT government as a source of current information.

The account only had 156 followers (around 7am this morning) as a result - actually surprisingly high considering!

Tweets were not being coordinated with the information on the ESA website to direct people to the latest (prose) news. It only takes 10 seconds to tweet: "New update on our website at #canberra #emergency #act"

On the plus side they have taken a leaf out of the work done by QLD Police Media, by starting to tweet mythbusters and use hashtags, such as: Myth buster - there is no report that the fire close to gas tanks #Mitchell

They are also now responding directly to people spreading incorrect information.

UPDATE 7.34am: @ACT_ESA have increased their following from 156 to 583 followers in the last 30 minutes (while I wrote this post).

UPDATE 7:47am: @ACT_ESA now at 769 followers. Still not mentioned in any official websites.

UPDATE 8:04am: @ACT_ESA now at 859 followers.

UPDATE 8:28am: @ACT_ESA now at 966 followers.

UPDATE 8:57am: @ACT_ESA now at 1,049 followers.

UPDATE 9:44am: @ACT_ESA now at 1,135 followers.

UPDATE 8:32pm: @ACT_ESA now at 1,401 followers

This is serious business. If governments across Australia are serious about supporting citizens in crisis, they need to get serious about social media.

They needs to integrate social media into their emergency planning, build channels online and tell people where to find them when they are needed.

They need to coordinate these channels effectively, managing them as they manage other emergency channels (though maybe not like the SMS channel, where the ABC reported that spelling mistakes in the text message had made some people wrongly believe it was a hoax - UPDATE: Image of the message here and at right).

A public service that no-one knows about is worthless. An emergency service that is not in place and trialled before the emergency is not as useful as one that is pre-prepared.

Governments also need to learn how to use these channels effectively. In this case (EDIT: at 7:00am) the account has not yet used a hashtag (even the standard ones for the ACT, #Canberra and #ACT). It had tweeted 'at' others, but not retweeted others.

It is not as though Twitter is new - it has been around for five years. Isn't that ample time for a government agency to learn the basics of how to use a tool to the benefit of citizens?

More news on the fire is available here.

Please heed messages from the emergency services and police, stay aware of the bus and school closures and don't go sightseeing. The most recent information is being published on ESA's website (though not being retweeted by their account at this time).

On Twitter, @ACT_ESA, ACTPol_Traffic, CanberraTimes and 666Canberra are worth following.


  1. While some will be crying "too little, too late" (and I might have in the past), I'm just happy that someone at ESA had the presence of mind to get active overnight and to do it smartly. What we're seeing this morning from @act_esa is good stuff.

    Now, we need them to keep doing it during business as usual and help people *prepare* for things like bushfire season by putting out good information.

    ACT Policing and the AFP more generally still have some way to go...

  2. I actually admit I probably disagree... to be honest this type of incident has forcibly put the ESA's twitter feed into people's minds and I must admit that it's now on my list as well. But what better way to promote it by saying hey we have this? I highly doubt we would have seen anywhere near 1500 people follow the account before today. This was great work by the ACT ESA and hopefully we'll see plenty more to come (heaven forbid we have more incidents like this though).