Summit Explores Impact of Social Media on Disaster Management

American Red Cross conference focuses on use of social media in emergencies and disasters, as well as before and after

By Leslie Smith

American Red Cross, Washington, D.C.

On Aug. 12, 2010, the American Red Cross convened more than 150 representatives from the government, nonprofit, technology and citizen sectors to:

  1. raise awareness about the gaps between public expectations and emergency managers’ capacity,
  2. acknowledge that 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 Aug. 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.

From Haiti to Everywhere

The impetus for the summit was the earthquake in Haiti. We at the American Red Cross started receiving direct tweets and Facebook posts requesting help. In the early days, the requests were for search and rescue (“My cousin is trapped with others under the Caribbean Supermarket”), and as time went on we saw requests for supplies (“There are 100 senior citizens in Jacmel who have no water”).

Haiti is a unique situation, but we began to imagine how people in the United States might turn to sites like Facebook and Twitter to seek help the next time there’s a catastrophic event in the United States.

The public mentions the American Red Cross more than 1,000 times a day on the social Web, and my team reads every mention and responds to many of them. We have a robust social media presence on all the sites you’d expect: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and our blog.

We are accustomed to the social Web and are proud of our listening skills, but I was deeply affected by the kinds of information coming in through the social Web during Haiti. I began to tell anyone who would listen that we have an opportunity to help save lives. We were able to connect with the White House about the issue, and the summit was born.

Before the summit, we conducted a survey to ask the public about their expectations and published a white paper detailing the case for integrating time-honored emergency response expertise with real-time social input.

Not all About the Technology

Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern opened the summit by emphasizing that these issues are ones that could save lives: “I can’t think of anything more noble and exciting than that.”

During the summit, several questions and themes emerged, notably that disaster responders must recognize people as resources and not liabilities.

“As social media becomes more a part of our daily lives, people are turning to it during emergencies as well,” said Fugate. “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.”

The participants recognized that if we can overcome challenges such as verification, duplication, language, privacy and culture, we’ll 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 increased capacity and the public education needed.

“It’s not so much about technology, but people,” pointed out Robert Scoble, vp/customer advocacy at Rackspace, an IT hosting company based in San Antonio, Texas.

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 their 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 —and now they have the tools.

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina, social media have exploded, and their potential for use in crises was clear after the Haiti earthquake. Patrick Meier is a director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, a platform that unifies data 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 and at the summit 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,” she said.

A panel discussed the technology behind social data and how they’re 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.

A Focus on Outcomes

The rapid, exponential growth of social media, and the bells and whistles of new technology, are exciting, but Fugate reminded the audience of the ultimate goal.

“Do not focus on the technology, the tools or the gizmos,” he 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 aren’t staffed to monitor social media applications and respond in a major event. Nonetheless, 90 percent of those surveyed 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 social media, remarking that while her county’s 9-1-1 systems operate 24/7, 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’re simply bystanders. The enormous potential of social media is to leverage this fact to turn bystanders into life-savers.

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


Leslie Smith is a writer and editor for the American Red Cross. She works on content for and corporate communications.

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