Saturday, June 21, 2008

Social Media & Disasters: Creating Community Content

The place where the public media rubber meets the proverbial road is in response to a disaster, which are increasingly displacing huge numbers of individuals and causing billions of dollars of damage. For example, Hurricane Katrina caused over 1,800 deaths, displaced well over 50,000 people and caused over $81 billion dollars of damage.

Online Media Takes Charge...Sort Of

The Internet is almost the perfect medium for a quick response and information. There is a hurricane, a fire or a flood and almost instantly you can find a Flickr feed, videos on You Tube, an article on Wikipedia (see this example) and people giving up to the minute coverage via Twitter. In fact in most cases today it seems that online social media reporting is beating conventional news sources to the punch in bringing disasters into the media stream.
You get convergence of too many donated goods, too many self-deployed firemen. You may now have a convergence of too many freestyle bloggers and wiki types and whatever. How do you sort out charlatans from the real, and how do you give primary attention to the ones who are authentic and credible? - Claire Rubin, Emergency Management Fellow, George Washington University
The problem is how do we make it sensible, usable and actionable? A primary culprit is the market failure of organizing information and resources. There are significant efforts underway to create standards for "responders" and some very admirable news clearing houses, such as ReliefWeb, Reuters AlertNet and HumanitarianInfo, but none of these sites fully leverage the power of social media to build a framework for individuals caught in a disaster (or recovery) to take action. Everybody always hands the next step off to the other guy.

How can we leverage the power of online media to directly help people access resources and services? I can mortgage my house, buy a dog, find a partner and get health advice online...but if I am caught in a disaster I can only get "call this person" or "donate here".

Stages of a Disaster

The most important decision when formulating a response is figuring out what are the problems you are trying to solve. Is there a lack of news coverage? Are people finding resources? Are families separated from loved ones?

The next dimension is considering at what time to implement a social media response. There are common stages to disaster recovery, detailed in this chart by Ray Schurfield. They are:
  • Heroic (Immediate) - person takes actions to protect lives and property. Social Circle = family, neighbors & emergency teams.
  • Tunnel Vision (Weeks, to Months) - detachment & emotional numbing with person very-activity focused on basic tasks. Social Circle = Family, friends, work colleagues, civic groups.
  • Honeymoon (One Week to Three Months) - strong sense of lived through an experience, clearing debris and wreckage. Social Circle = Pre-existing & emergent community groups.
  • Disillusionment (Third Week Onward) - disappointment, anger, sadness over unfilled promises of aid. Focused on rebuilding personal life and sense of community lost. Social Circle = Self, Family.
  • Reconstruction/Recovery (Lasts of Several Years) - sense of determination in solving problems, seeking help and rebuilding lives. Social Circle = Community Groups, Government
Effective Media Tools for Disasters

Each of the stages have more effective social media tools than others, considering both the ability (mental and otherwise) of people caught in the disaster to use the tools, as well as the application for the tool at the time.

Twitter - in the immediate after effects (heroic phase) many disasters knock down widespread Internet access, but mobile devices are still able to connect. There are obvious voice applications, but online applications like Twitter have the potential to be a great resource users. The potential for disbursed family members to keep coordinated. Twitter has been used as a way to post minute-by-minute news updates, which was used to great affect during the Southern California Fires, but still remains to be proven as a family organizing tool.

Wikis - in both building common knowledge and where the situation is constantly evolving the creation of wikis play an increasing important role to support communities. The most obvious usage has been reporting and analyzing news, however they could support community building during Honeymoon to Restoration phases. Wikis can be effective tools to pool knowledge about the state of a community, of the location for emergency services and even basic community knowledge as it rebuilds itself.

Flickr/YouTube - whenever disaster strikes immediately we see photos and videos posted, and beyond the gawking factor, rich media can provide immediate, accessible and high quality information. While deploying a camera crew can seem daunting, today there are more high quality, but low-cost options than ever before. For example a Flip camera combined with off-the-shelf video editing program and you can quickly get video online through You Tube or other video streaming site. We (One Economy) deployed three staff to Southern California and over three days captured almost two hours of edited video of Red Cross, Homeland Security and other responders providing first-hand accounts of where people can get help, what to bring and what to expect.

Discussion Forums - perhaps much maligned, the old school discussion forum, especially moderated by experts can play a key role in helping to build community and share common knowledge.

Google Maps - mapping is finally coming of age, especially the robust tools that are available via Google Maps and Google Earth. The Red Cross has some particularly good examples of using mashups to chart disaster information. Building a mashup gives community members a visual picture of the community, especially of the relationship between government and other relief services. However, as Paul Currion on noted in a good discussion of maps "all of these magical online map services rely on the not-so-magical process of somebody actually doing the mapping, and to confirm a major change such as the destruction of a bridge requires an official survey." One suggested solution was a project that Michael Maron is working on called the Open Street Map, which is a community-built wiki world map, which seemingly responds to the 'ground truthing' problem.

Good Old Content - to go completely old school, some of the best tools in response to a disaster is simply picking up the phone, get busy on Google and start writing content that helps users navigate the complex systems of relief and recovery. One of the best examples where elbow grease has made all of the difference is one of the best recovery sites ever build, Lousiana Rebuilds. One Economy did have a very small role in the creation and growth of the site, but this effort is well worth replicating and is worth a whole separate post.

Getting Ready for the Next One

Beyond making the important decisions about defining what is the problem that needs to be solved and what stage should an online intervention happen, is the preparation that happens before the disaster. This includes a clear set of procedures, along with a framework site is a must for a successful response. A good rule of thumb is something you can 'unwrap' in less than 48 hours with starting content shows that you are on track. In a subsequent post I will go into how One Economy has built its disaster response.


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