Social Media

Twitter for disaster responders


Social media is becoming an increasingly important conduit for information about disasters including severe weather. (File photo)

The first images of the July 6 plane crash in San Francisco emerged on Twitter, with survivors posting photos of the wrecked plane. Increasingly, people on the front lines of natural disasters, civic emergencies, industrial accidents and other disruptions are turning to social media to call for help, communicate with friends and family, and share photographs with authorities.

According to a Red Cross survey from last year, 76 percent of Americans expect help to arrive within three hours of posting a call for aid on a social media site. With expectations high, government agencies are increasingly looking for ways to engage with disaster victims, first responders, and volunteers on social media.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses social media as a channel to share information to help people prepare for impending disasters, amplify messages from hard-hit localities, convey information about how emergency assistance is reaching stricken communities, stimulate volunteer support and donations, and to get feedback on their efforts. The agency also uses social media to debunk rumors and deliberate misinformation posted online.

In testimony at a July 9 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications, Shayne Adamski, FEMA's senior manager of digital engagement, said the agency has seen dramatic growth in social media following, jumping from 25,000 followers across all social media in June 2010 to more than 500,000 today.

Despite the rapid growth, FEMA's social media audience is tiny compared to the number of people who could potentially need information about a developing emergency. Tweets from FEMA are amplified by retweets from public officials, media outlets, and through broadcast on radio and television.

And audience-building remains a hurdle for FEMA. While people need information about disasters that are bearing down around them, they may be less interested in the daily chatter of emergency management agencies. "We're not saying anything interesting most of the time," said Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, which recently faced the challenge of coping with a series of powerful tornados.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) wants to make sure that government information released during crises and disasters can be disseminated by established sites, without necessarily going through social media channels. "For the government to best utilize social media, it's not just about putting information on Twitter and Facebook. Agencies need to be providing data in a useable, open source format so the high technology companies like Google can quickly and easily incorporate it into their own webpages, apps, and other portals," Swalwell said.

FEMA appears to be taking steps in this direction. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said that she's "heard that FEMA is engaging with private sector companies, including Google and Twitter, to determine how best to take advantage of open data, social media and two-way interaction to enhance their emergency management capabilities."

FEMA currently relies on a digital engagement team of about 20 to read of social media feeds to identify trends and spikes in social media chatter that might be of interest. Brooks worried that this approach makes "monitoring efforts difficult to scale up during large disasters," when the spike in volume of posts is likely to overwhelm staff.

The American Red Cross has a digital operations center with software filters to identify trends on social media, and FEMA is apparently considering following suit. Adamski said the agency was exploring new methods of "social listening," including the use of existing private sector tools.

In a brief interview after the hearing, Adamski said he couldn't identify precisely which tools FEMA was considering adopting. But FCW reported in January on one possibility: social analytics firm Topsy Labs' work with an unnamed federal agency to improve disaster response through "geo-inferencing" -- the capability to zoom in on social media chatter in a specific region based on information contained within tweets.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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