The annual Social Media and Response Management Interface Event (SMARMIE) was held at the Metropolitan College of New York, (MCNY) on 28 February 2013, bringing together thought leaders, practitioners and academics, to discuss emerging topics related to the use of social media in emergency response. The central topic of this year’s event was leveraging the ‘crowd’ to enhance emergency situational awareness and response.
Throughout the day, a number of themes emerged.
Crisis Data is becoming more available and valuable
Ignoring the more cliché elements of Big Data, the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras and GPS technology to produce data, combined with social networks to share it, represent what Patrick Meier characterized as a, “Tsunami of change in emergency management.” Emergency managers now have access to crisis information, often in real-time from those witnessing the event, that to be exploited to:
- Precisely target emergency response
- Match needs with available resources
- Identify and deal with problems before they spiral out of control
- Meet the public’s expectations to not just be serviced, but engaged throughout emergency preparedness and response
Meier also noted that, “There will be more information produced in 2013 than in any time in history.” The corollary being that while emergency managers will have access to more information, analyzing it will pose a significant challenge. The solution proposed by Meier: a combination of crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence.
The rise of Digital Humanitarian Networks and Digital Philanthropy
Patrick Meier’s keynote address focused on the power of Digital Humanitarian Networks to create information, leveraging local knowledge to fill gaps in the data set, and to make sense of it. The key to analyzing social media crisis information for situational awareness, he argued, is to connect Digital Samaritans. In this context, the approach he proposed is a combination of human computing and artificial intelligence:
Automated Data Collection + Processing + Crowdsourcing
Meier characterizes digital humanitarian volunteers as, “The Jedis of crisis management,” highlighting that there is a need for an interface between professional humanitarian workers and volunteer crisis mappers. The former will uncover the gaps in their crisis information, and the latter will provide it, supported by ever more powerful data aggregation tools.
Increasingly powerful crisis data analysis tools
Social media and networks provide potentially geo-referenced, eye-witness accounts of events, but in such volume, and with such velocity and variety that managing it can overwhelm emergency managers. That said, enabled by the ubiquitous use of social media on smartphones with GPS and cameras, there are a number of tools to help emergency managers to automatically collect and process data. Among them:
- Geofeedia: a service to search social media in real-time, by location. Geofeedia allows emergency managers to set a ‘geo-fence’ an area and then monitor, filter and analyze social media feeds, and then share and publish information with your networks. From the presentation, it seems that Geofeedia will soon provide enhanced analysis metrics, such as location-specific, social network trends.
- Photosynth: a set of Microsoft tools to weave photos, taken from different locations, into 3D images that can then be shared on Facebook and Twitter, integrated into the Bing search engine, or published to web pages and blogs. In contrast to a panorama that gives one perspective from one location, ‘photosynths’ allows the viewer to ‘fly’ through the image. Limitation: although there is a Photosynth iOS app, the PC tools are only available for Windows.
While these platforms stylishly provide powerful analysis tools, traditional social networks have established their value for crisis communications, situational awareness and customer support. For example, Facebook has emerged as THE source of hyper-local crisis information. Instagram could well be the next big contributor to the crisis data set.
Another related area of interest is how organizations are integrating and situating the application of these tools within dedicated operations centers, to engage the public in emergency response. Wendy Harman, Director of Social Strategy for the American Red Cross, explained that all Red Cross staff have social engagement responsibilities, which are:
- To execute the mission online
- Grow the network
- Give the public a voice in operational decision-making
Jeff Phillips argued that an engagement culture has replaced the official, scheduled, single-source formula for crisis communications, characterized by a ‘push system’ under which an organization is the sole generator of content. The implications of this change is that organizations must:
- Identify the power users within their network through Social Network Analysis (see the Related Articles below)
- Monitor social media for actionable information
- Provide the tools and content to enlist networks to catalyze collaboration and cooperation to improve preparedness and response
In cases of limited resources, organizations can establishe a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) to monitor, triage and document social media messages to improve situational awareness, respond to requests for help, and mobilize trusted agents as a crisis communications force multiplier.
Concern about social media risks
Following the extensive use of social media to engage and inform the public before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, the application of social media tools to support emergency management has changed from being a trend to an expectation. Nevertheless, there remains significant concern about our ability to manage the associated risks; a concern that arose at the conference. Anxiety from using social media for official purposes is particularly acute in the financial industry, due to regulatory requirements and industry characteristics.* My take on social media risks, and how to control them, is described here.
Another participant concern, which is a common one, is the accuracy of social media posts (some of the hoaxes around Hurricane Sandy can be found here). Meier notes that with expanding communication on social networks in emergency management and other fields, demand for innovation in social media content verification will increase. Meier reminded participants of two examples:
- The Queensland Police use of the #mythbusters hashtag to report rumours and incorrect information on Twitter
- The BBC has verified social media information since 2005.
Twitter has a self-correcting mechanism, but we still need to monitor the accuracy of posted information, especially if it can be ‘actionable’ in a crisis. Meier suggests the following approach to social media information quality control: Trust and Verify. A variation to this theme, at a panel during a recent Social Media Week event in New York, David Carr, a media and culture columnist at the New York Times, reiterated, “If you report information for a living, you really need to hover over the retweet button.”
In a story on the 60 Minutes television program that aired on 17 March 2013, Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, remarked that the inspiration for Twitter came from listening to the way first responders communicated over the radio in his native St. Louis. These tools are tailor-made to support emergency managers prepare for, and respond to, crisis events.
However, social networks also benefit the public during emergencies. During the same program, Dorsey remarked that his creation allows us to share, “Where we are, what we are doing, where we are going and how we are feeling.” This sentiment was reinforced by one of the presenters at the conference, who made the insightful observation that on an average day, people post about ‘Likes’ and ‘Loves’, but in a crisis they actively engage in discussions on preparedness, disaster impact and response. Social media democratizes response and enhances accountability by giving all stakeholders a seat at the table.
From the length of this epistle, you have hopefully gained a perspective on the breadth and density of the material covered at the SMARMIE conference (which will keep me coming back). What was particularly exciting, is the rate of advance of innovation in the use of social media in emergency management, spawned by the nexus of distributed thought leaders and practitioners on the very platforms that are advancing the field. Nevertheless, some interesting ideas arose at the conference that I would like to explore in more detail:
- How to integrate crowdsouring and micro-tasking into online games (raised by Patrick Meier)
- Best practices to set up and govern a Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST)
- How do we adapt the process-driven approach to emergency management to the “beautiful chaos of the social web.” (raised by Wendy Harman)
* – Recognizing the financial institutions are “using social media as a tool to generate new business and provide a dynamic environment to interact with consumers,” recently the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) solicited comments on proposed guidance entitled Social Media: Consumer Compliance Risk Management Guidance. The proposed guidance identifies three sources of social media risk:
- Compliance and Legal Risk;
- Reputation Risk; and
- Operational Risk; and
suggests high-level controls for each risk area.
- Monitoring Social Media by Location – Do tools like GeoFeedia invade privacy? (idisaster.wordpress.com)
- Keynote: Next Generation Humanitarian Technology (irevolution.net)
- The social web and crisis communications – Be all that you can be (buridansblog.com)
- Social Network Analysis for Digital Humanitarian Response (irevolution.net)
- Social Network Analysis of Tweets During Australia Floods (irevolution.net)
- Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross (irevolution.net)