Give the public a role in disaster response

It's time for DHS to tap into social media's proven ability to provide valuable information in a crisis, writes consultant W. David Stephenson.

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.