Preparing for the Next Disaster: The Future of #crisisdata

Submitted by Brett on Wed, 10/13/2010 - 10:17am

By Wendy Harman, Social Media Director, American Red Cross

On January 12, 2010, I didn't personally experience the major earthquake that hit Haiti, but I was forever changed by it. In the midst of inexplicable tragedy, my personal definition of the social web got rocked. I've always evangelized the potential of tools like Facebook and Twitter to create meaningful communities and collaborations, but now realize the true opportunity for all of us who spend our days mixing up cocktails of mission and technology:   

social tools + people = lives saved. 

The American Red Cross is mentioned more than 1,000 times per day on the social web. We have a robust social media presence on all the sites you'd expect: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and our blog. We're good at listening, responding, engaging, building community, and providing value. We set up the home bases, provide mission-related information, and enjoy all the people who come in to play. But I wasn't prepared for the type of incoming information I saw in the weeks after January 12, 2010.  

Crisis data = people 

In the midst of the viral Text HAITI to 90999 message, we saw the emergence of what we're calling emergency social data, or #crisisdata. Between the millions of Text HAITI retweets, several hundred people reached out to us online to ask for help or to tell us about specific needs within Port-au-Prince.  

On twitter, scenarios like this popped up:

"@redcross my cousin is texting me from under the rubble at Caribbean Supermarket. Please send someone to get her out." 

And on Facebook we saw posts like this on our wall:

"There are 100 senior citizens on a hill in Jacmel who haven't been helped. Please bring them water." 

We opened ourselves up, invited communities, and created an expectation that asking for help in these spaces will result in real-life action. In fact, a survey we conducted indicates many people expect help to arrive within one hour of posting a request on an emergency organization's Facebook page.

Unfortunately, this isn't Domino's Pizza and disaster response can't work as if it is. BUT, what if we did invite the public to provide situational awareness such as telling us about the elderly people on a hill? What if we could route the 9-1-1 type requests to the appropriate responders? What if we stopped thinking of the public as a liability and started empowering them to be valuable resources who can increase efficiency and make a real impact? 

The American Red Cross is now looking into how best to give the public an increased role in disaster response. We did some research around this issue and published a white paper detailing the case for integrating time-honored emergency response expertise with real-time social input. Then, exactly 7 months after the earthquake on August 12, 2010, we convened an Emergency Social Data Summit with more than 150 representatives from the government, nonprofit, technology, and citizen sectors to:

  1. raise awareness about the gaps between public expectation and emergency managers' capacity
  2. acknowledge we should take steps to close these gaps and
  3. begin to formulate action items we can take together. In addition to those in the room on August 12, another 1,200 contributors joined online via ustream and Twitter.

This gathering marked the first time these diverse sectors came together -- from Crisis Commons and Ushahidi to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and White House New Media Director Macon Phillips -- to discuss all the opportunities and challenges we face in integrating social data with disaster response.  

During the Summit, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said, "As social media becomes more a part of our daily lives, people are turning to it during emergencies as well. We need to utilize these tools, to the best of our abilities, to engage and inform the public, because no matter how much federal, state and local officials do, we will only be successful if the public is brought in as part of the team." 

Participants in the Summit recognized that if we can overcome challenges of verification, duplication, language, privacy, and culture, we will be in a position to empower the public to share valuable information with all of us. We discussed the challenges and opportunities around codifying an online request code, what role mobile must play, the needs for increased capacity and public education. As Robert Scoble pointed out, "It's not so much about technology but people."

Macon Phillips, special assistant to the President and director of new media for the White House, was a volunteer during Hurricane Katrina. Working in a Baton Rouge shelter, he saw children looking for their parents, and parents looking for their children, yet matching them was difficult. Multiple organizations and systems were having trouble coordinating and sharing information.

"It left me believing in the transformative power of the web, and how it could be used in crisis situations," Phillips said.

He also commented on the empowering nature of social media and its ability to let one individual change reality. "One person can take a photo. One person can post a message... and it changes all our understanding of a situation immediately."

People have always wanted to help. Now they have the tools.

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina, social media has exploded, and its potential for use in crises was clear after the Haiti earthquake. Patrick Meier is a director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, which is a platform that unifies data gathered from multiple sources (SMS, e-mail, web) and distributes it onto a visual map or timeline. It was used after the earthquake to map actionable information, using the volunteer efforts of thousands of people around the world.

Melissa Eliott was heavily involved in the Haiti relief effort as a volunteer. Positioning herself as the "everyman," Eliott emphasized the power that regular citizens have during emergencies. Using new media allowed Eliott and others to get people food, water, and critical medical attention after the earthquake. "Every individual can make a difference by stepping up and using the tools available," Eliott said.

A group of panelists discussed the technology behind social data and how they are being used in crises. Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, noted Facebook's involvement after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, as well as after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, explaining how the platform is educating the public and letting them know how they can help.

The rapid, exponential growth of social media -- and the bells and whistles of new technology -- are exciting. But Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reminded the audience of the ultimate goal.

"Do not focus on the technology, the tools or the gizmos," Fugate said. "Focus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Social media can empower the public to be part of the response, not as victims to be taken care of."

One thing is clear: the public's use of social media in crises is growing. One of the many challenges this presents is the ability of first responders and governments to monitor this information and act on it in a timely manner.

In a June 2010 survey of the DomPrep40, an advisory board of disaster response practitioners and opinion leaders, nine out of 10 respondents said they are not staffed to monitor social media applications and respond in a major event. Furthermore, 90 percent of respondents also felt that the public expects some action based on social media applications.

Representatives from local, state, and federal government cited their own experiences with social media, from local tweets and posts during "Snowmaggedon" to text messages sent in Haiti that resulted in Marines evacuating people who needed help.

Merni Fitzgerald, public affairs director for the Fairfax County, Va., government, discussed one of the challenges of this new media, remarking that while her county's 9-1-1 systems operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no one is monitoring social media around the clock.

The social media, disaster response, non-profit and government leaders had a working lunch to brainstorm ways to better aggregate and respond to information on social media sites. Participants discussed how social media tools can be used to distribute preparedness information ahead of a disaster as well as tips on what people can do afterwards.

"We can help prevent emergencies from becoming disasters," said Brian Humphrey of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The first people to respond during a disaster are not usually trained responders or other professionals. Frequently, they are simply bystanders. The enormous potential of social media is to leverage this fact to turn bystanders into lifesavers.

There are still more questions than answers for response agencies right now, but we will continue to develop and share best practices together.


Wendy Harman is a professional listener, an online communities explorer, a hopelessly addicted Tweeter, and a nonprofit lifer (so far). She carries out these activities each day at the American Red Cross in Washington, DC, where she’s been employed as a social media manager since late 2006. Prior to joining the American Red Cross, she fell in love with intellectual property at law school and then worked for musicians’ rights at the Future of Music Coalition and Lawyers for the Arts. She was along for the ride when musicians were among the first to bypass traditional gatekeepers using social media tools, and she’s been trying to keep up and do good ever since.