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.

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