Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What's faster than an earthquake? Social media

Last week the US East Coast experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake.

While comparatively weak compared to quakes experienced elsewhere in the world in the last year, the event was powerful in one sense.

It demonstrated the speed of social media.

People in New York learnt of the quake before it actually hit, by reading the tweets of people experiencing the quake in Washington.

Yep that's right - news about the quake travelled faster through social media than the actual quake travelled through the ground.

Here's a comic from xkcd (found via Wired) illustrating the point. Note this was written before the quake!

Socialnomics reported that there were 40,000 quake-related tweets within 60 seconds. It also reported that "Facebook said it had some 3 million U.S. users updating others about the event."

This included more than tweets from the public. The Socialnomics post also reported that a proportion of messages came from government agencies,

According to a FEMA spokesperson, the agency put Twitter to use to alert people impacted by the quake not to use cell phones unless absolutely necessary, thereby freeing up some of the lines for emergency calls.

Among the tweets was this one from the Department of Justice – “Quake: Tell friends/family you are OK via text, email and social media (@twitter & facebook.com). Avoid calls.”

Meantime, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted – “I’ve spoken w/ our Police and Fire Commissioners & we’ve activated the Emergency Management Situation Room. Thankfully, there are no reports of significant damage or injuries in NYC at this time.”

Twitter also thought it worth releasing a short 'boast' video about its speed, as republished in Mashable:

The earthquake's impact on Twitter was even presented at the G-Force conference in Melbourne the same (US) day - via this video recorded and presented by Charlie Isaacs, eServices and Social Media Engineering, Alcatel Lucent.

Back to the Socialnomics article, social media is becoming a critical important channel for emergency management,
According to a pair of June Red Cross surveys from more than 2,000 people combined:
  • After television and local radio, the Internet ranks the third most popular way for people to obtain emergency information with 18 percent of both the general and the online population directly using Facebook;
  • Nearly one fourth (24 percent) of the general population and a third (31 percent) of the online population would turn to social media to alert loved ones they are safe;
  • Four of five (80 percent) of the general and 69 percent of the online populations surveyed think that national emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites in order to respond quickly.
“Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response,” Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, said in a statement. “During the record-breaking 2011 spring storm season, people across America alerted the Red Cross to their needs via Facebook. We also used Twitter to connect to thousands of people seeking comfort, and safety information to help get them through the darkest hours of storms.”

Now to spoil a good story, the Wired article in which I found the xkcd comic, Tweet Waves vs. Seismic Waves, did an analysis of the effectiveness of Twitter in warning people about this particular quake so that they could take action to protect themselves from its effects.

The analysis, while limited in scope to this one quake, indicated that barely anyone would have had the time between receiving information via Twitter and taking an action to seek safety.

Of course, social media isn't only useful for earthquakes - fires, floods and many other disasters spread at a slower rate conducive to social media warnings. Also larger earthquakes may have bigger radii, meaning there's greater prospect of people catching news via social media and having time to take action.

There's also still plenty of value in getting news about a disaster as, or just after it happens, elsewhere in the world, This allows emergency management mechanisms to swing into action - in this case every minute saved can preserve lives.

So I'm definitely of the view that social media has important uses in disaster and emergency situations. It can save lives directly and indirectly and help management teams do their job.

Organisations just need to ensure that social media is thoroughly integrated into official disaster management plans and appropriate channels are in place before emergencies occur.

After all, might it not be considered negligence if governments and organisations ignored social media in emergencies when it could save lives?

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