COMMENTARY

Give the public a role in disaster response

W. David Stephenson is the principal at Stephenson Strategies in Medfield, Mass., and a Government/Enterprise 2.0 consultant.

After this spring’s tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest and given the heightened concern about a possible new round of terrorist attacks, it’s time the Homeland Security Department made the public full partners in disaster and terrorism preparedness and response. Through creative use of social media and portable electronic devices, we’ve shown that we can provide important, actionable information. But DHS gives only lip service to an empowered public.

It’s been two years since DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the department would emulate the World War II strategy of involving the public in planning and response. Yet all we’ve seen from DHS is the disturbingly vague “If you see something, say something” campaign. Officials haven’t given us any guidance.

The department uses Twitter and Facebook to alert us during a disaster but only as an alternative broadcast medium. It doesn’t take advantage of social media’s opportunity for dialogue.

DHS should look to the National Weather Service for an effective model. NWS has programmed its computers to automatically read any tweets with the hashtag #wxreport. Amateur weather watchers use that tag to report tornadoes and other extreme weather. Because Global Positioning System chips automatically report a smart phone’s location, NWS can pinpoint an event on a real-time basis and get critical situational awareness.

During the Haiti earthquake, Project EPIC introduced a system to convey the maximum information in Twitter’s 140-character format. Short hashtags (#location, #status, #needs, #damage) preface content in tweets, and the information following the hashtags is machine-readable and, therefore, spread and analyzed automatically. Substantive, real-time situational awareness in only 140 characters!

In an era of fiscal limits, the government should stop hiring contractors to build multibillion-dollar communication systems that are vulnerable to attack because they are centralized and unlikely, given the history of such projects, to ever work as promised. You and I not only gladly buy the hardware for a more robust system, we even pay for constant upgrades.

Even better, we’ve built far-reaching social networks that give credibility to the messages that we originate or pass on from government officials.

An effective, networked homeland security strategy can’t be built around a specific device or application because it’s impossible to known in advance which one might still be usable in a disaster. Instead, the strategy must use a mix of tools, such as Twitter, Facebook, real-time Qik videos or, in the worst disasters, walkie-talkies.

The public has already kept our part of the bargain by buying advanced mobile devices and mastering social apps that can be invaluable in disasters. In an American Red Cross survey last year, one in five users said they had provided information about an emergency to their online social networks.

Now the government must meet us halfway.

That involves two things: coaching us on what kind of information would be helpful in an emergency and, when one happens, factoring real-time, location-based information from the public into actionable intelligence for responding while using social media to guide us. Pennsylvania’s Terrorism Awareness and Prevention program does all that. It would be simple for the federal government to adopt that approach and scale it up.

Also, it’s important that government agencies begin creating relationships with social media communities in advance of an emergency to build mind share and credibility so that we’ll look to them as part of our trusted networks in times of need.

During World War II, those on the home front felt empowered because of outreach programs designed to give them a specific role. It’s time for DHS to go beyond public service announcements to do the same.

About the Author

W. David Stephenson is the principal at Stephenson Strategies in Medfield, Mass., and a government/enterprise 2.0 consultant.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Sun, Jul 17, 2011 @davepierpont

DHS legal and privacy issues have not caught up to this form of communication. They are the ones who must be directed from the top to think with a sense of innovation to find commonsense workarounds for the public and DHS analysts to engage each other.

I have advocated that as a bridge, FEMA's CERT program have a trained/certified cyber corps component. These citizens would help curate information for operations and emergency management teams. They could also engage directly with operations about what they are seeing. Since they are part of the program they would sign Terms of Service with DHS that would bypass their normal concerns.

This is by the way, not a new issue.

http://www.dhs.gov/files/publications/gc_1281732303362.shtm#7

http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/olympics-feds-reading-tweets/story?id=9825070

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2010-02-01-haiti-monitor-social-media_N.htm

Wed, Jul 6, 2011 SC

In California we are given the opportunity to have a role in disaster response by way of our CERT, Community Emergency REsponse Team. I suggest evewry state provide htis opportunity and every citizen participate. It's well worth the minor charge for the class and materials and results in CPR and First Aid cert's as well as a lot of actionable knowledge.

Wed, Jul 6, 2011 Tax paying citizen Washing

In today's world there is no such thing as a single device or class of devices. It is all about managing information. As shown in Hati, information helps people make decisions. Not always the best decision but at least an informed one. There are many commercial systems that can perform this task. Stop trying to design a new exotic system and start looking at how you can use what exists. Yes, if you trust the public you will get some bogus information. But the large percentage will be good information. Give the public good information and watch what wonders happen. Information should be used and communicated. If the public knows more of what is happening they will provide better information to help improve the situation. Basic human nature will prevail over stupid human actions every time.

Wed, Jul 6, 2011

The problem is a two way street, the government doesn't trust the people any more than the people trust the government. (and of course the People are right!)

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above