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.

How GIS technology and social media helped crisis response in Australia

As a new article at the O’Reilly Radar showed today, social data and geospatial mapping have joined the crisis response toolset. A new online application from geospatial mapping giant ESRI applies trend analysis to help responders to Australia’s recent floods create relevance and context from social media reporting. The Australian flood trends map shows how crowdsourced social intelligence provided by Ushahidi enables emergency social data to be integrated into crisis response in a meaningful way.

The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that “formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible,” said Patrick Meier, “and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses.” Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.

Russ Johnson, ESRI’s global director for emergency response, recently spoke with the correspondent at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations. Our full interview is embedded below in the following video.

The world of crisis response has changed dramatically in the past several years, said Johnson. The beauty of the present historic moment is that “everybody can be a sensor,” said Johnson. “Everybody is potentially part of the network. The struggle that operators have is taking all of that free form data and trying to put into some sort of framework that makes it accurate.”

Emergency and crisis responders are faced with significant cultural barriers that have nothing to do with logging on to a website or configuring a new account, explained Johnson. “Public safety organizations are really, really resistant to change,” he said. “Technology has frightened a lot of people before social media was a new data source. It’s a new challenge that’s threatening to a lot of people. The question I pose is simple. Let’s use the first responder scenario, where you have 4-6 minutes from the time you get the call. the expectation is you’ll be on scene. Think about the possibility that before you arrive, thousands of people will have video on YouTube. They may have more situation awareness. When you arrive, you’ll be videoed, watched, and critiqued. Shouldn’t you consider that data if it can help you deploy more safely or effectively?”

Johnson said that he really likes FEMA director Fugate’s philosophy and operational mentality in that context. Fugate has emphasized that he believes the public can be a resource in crises, instead of a hindrance. The current FEMA chief is tapping social media’s potential for aiding disaster response. “There are times when agencies can’t get good intelligence,” said Johnson. “I cannot tell you how many times where we had televisions and the best information we were getting was from CNN or helicopters. There are times when it may be wrong but I’d rather have it be part of our mashup of data to help validate and inform responders.”

The technology itself has also evolved recently, said Johnson. “We used to have to have a specific person to support mission, which meant we had to drag a person trained in GIS everywhere. As the technology has evolved, and data has evolved, the tools have reached the operator and first responder level. We can now match persona, mission and task to GIS tech so that it fits them. You can get complex answers that can be generated by an operator, not a GIS geek.”

How did Haiti change the conversation?

“Everyone thought Haiti would be completely dark,” said Johnson, with all information provided by boots on the ground. In fact, social media played an important role, he said, highlighted by the efforts of Crisis Congress and others who heard those digital cries for help. Social media “brought the light on,” said Johnson, providing not just something to act on but perhaps the only thing to act on, at least initially. In subsequent crises, responders have found that crisis data, particularly when added to maps for context, can provide valuable insight long before official reports emerge.

This trend is a key issue for communities as more citizen engagement platforms emerge. “When you have a large emergency, who are the first responders? Who can get to you the most quickly? Your neighbors,” says Johnson. “if you can have a universal way to communicate to the people who can help you, that may have the only help you have. Conventionally, you think of the guys in uniforms and helmets.”

In 2011, citizens have the opportunity to shoulder more of that shared responsibility than ever.

New iPhone app connects trained citizens to others in cardiac distress

In 2011, there needs to be a better way to empower citizens trained in CPR to receive alerts about nearby cardiac arrest victims with geolocated maps and the location of electronic defribrillators to help them.

Now, there’s an app for that too: firedepartment.mobi. The new new geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims in San Ramon. FireDepartment can be downloaded directly from iTunes.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California launched a iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. This new application is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment. This FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramone will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives. Here’s a demo of the app:

iPhone Demo from Fire Department on Vimeo.

Adriel Hampton called FireDepartment the perfect blend of technology, government and volunteers. Can an everyday citizen become a hero? As Joe Hackman observed, “Today it just got a lot easier.”