To use social media in a time of need, start building networks before disasters

As is the case in every major event in the U.S., social media was part of the fabric of communications during Hurricane Sandy. Twitter was a window into what was happening in real-time. Facebook gave families and friends a way to stay in touch about safety or power. And government officials and employees, from first responders mayors to governors to the President of the United States, put critical information into the hands of citizens that needed it.

While Hurricane Sandy cemented the utility of these networks, neither they nor their role are new. With all due respect to Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio, his notion that people aren’t conveying “useful information” every day there — that it’s just ” chatting about sport results, or favorite actors, or how to bake” — is like some weird flashback to a 2007 blog post or ignorant cable news anchor.

Public sector, first responders and emergency management officials have recognized the utility of social media reports as a means for situational awareness before, during and after natural or man-made disasters for years now and have integrated tools into crisis response.

Officials at local, state and federal levels have confirmed to me again and again that it’s critical to build trusted networks *before* disaster strikes so that when crises occur, the quality of intelligence is improved and existing relationships with influence can amplify their messages.

Media and civil society serve as infomediaries and critical filters (aka, B.S. detectors) for vetting information, something that has proved crucial with fake reports and pictures popping up. Official government accounts play a critical role for putting trusted information into the networks to share, something we saw in real-time up and down the East Coast this week.

To be frank, Di Maio’s advice that authorities shouldn’t incorporate social media into their normal course of business is precisely the opposite of the experience on the ground of organizations like the Los Angeles Fire Department, Red Cross or FEMA. Here’s Brian Humphrey, public information officer of the LAFD, on best practices for social media:

If public safety officials come across Di Maio’s advice, I hope they’ll choose instead to listen to citizens every day and look to scale the best practices of their peers for using technology for emergency response, not start during a crisis.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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