Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Using social media in emergency and disaster management

I’m currently in Singapore, having just finished running a two-day masterclass for Singaporean public servants on how to use social media in emergency management.

It is a very interesting topic and one I don’t think is high enough on the radar in Australia or many other countries, although there’s now plenty of case studies on the topic.

I’m not going to share the full two day master class (it is both too long and too complex to go through) – particularly as it includes several in-depth exercises where teams create their social media infrastructure for an emergency and then test it in a custom simulation exercise.

However I thought it worth sharing a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Firstly, in my view, not using social media for emergency management invites disaster.

Whether emergency service personnel and management ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Facebook, Twitter or other social media and online channels is now irrelevant. Citizens, media organisations and other groups increasingly rely on them to share information, tactics and to organise outside of any central control by an agency and regardless of their wishes.

A clear example of this was reported in the Crisis Comms blog, which has a great example of a police department reaching out to media and the public to help them by checking surveillance footage, looking for a suspected murderer.

The media and public were so willing to help that the SB District Attorney then attempted to rein in the situation with a tweet ‘The sheriff has asked all members of the press to stop tweeting immediately. It is hindering officer safety. #Dorner’

Mumbai terrorist attacks (2008)
As the Crisis Comms blog points out, and I agree, it is ludicrous to ask people to stop engaging, particularly after they were specifically invited to help. This misrepresents the authority and influence held by official bodies in our new connected world.

In other emergencies where official bodies have chosen to not engage via social media channels, the gap has been filled by the public, such as in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. There’s simply no way for emergency services to prevent this – and nor should they.

For example after the London riots, some members of parliament suggested closing down the internet to prevent rioters from spreading information.
London riots (2011)

This was in apparently unawareness that rioters were actually using Blackberry’s encrypted message service which wasn’t connected to the internet, and overlooked how valuable the internet was in allowing authorities to elicit the public’s help in identifying rioters (via a Flickr group), helping London residents to inform police where riots were underway and to help other residents stay clear or in the cleanup efforts afterwards, where social media was used as a primary way to organize citizens to clean-up different parts of the city.

Social media also allowed London Police to monitor the relative intensity of riots and allocate their officers more effectively – essentially giving them more than six million additional pairs of eyes in Greater London, without the inefficiency of manning phone lines or sending police out as ‘scouts’ (with all the risks this would entail).

So how can social media help around emergencies and disasters?

I believe social media can help in all stages – from helping to inform citizens of what they should do in case of a particular emergency, letting them know when one is emerging/impending (such as a bushfire or flood), sourcing intelligence and communicating information during emergencies to help minimise casualties and direct resources where they are needed and, in the recovery, to marshal the right resources and supplies to the right places via volunteer citizen labor and donations.

Social media, in helping people share their experiences during a disaster, can also help with psychological recovery, something strongly reported in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake, where its been reported that social media has replaced churches and community centres (many of which were destroyed) as the place where people support one another and share experiences.

Christchurch earthquake (2011)
To conclude, social media is now part of the fabric of society, normalized into how many people communicate and share information.

It needs to similarly be normalized into emergency and disaster management plans and activities, used productively and effectively to aid professional emergency workers in their roles and to inform and engage citizens as appropriate in specific situations.

Emergency authorities who are still stand-offish about social media, because their management and staff don’t use these channels themselves, or because they have particular concerns or fears, need to bring in the appropriate talent to help them normalize social media in their own operations, otherwise they may be placing lives at risk.

1 comment:

  1. The role that social media can play in disaster management is paramount. We have seen a great deal of changes in the last few years across the world in how it is utilised. Since social media has permeated the daily lives of most, I think it will only play a more critical role in years to come.