Thursday, January 14, 2010

Will Haiti be the event where responders discover the value of social media?

First, my heart and prayers go out to those hundreds of thousands suffering unspeakable agony in this disaster. My gratitude also, to those who have already responded and to the people of this great nation who are so eager to help those in need.

It if far too early to draw lessons learned, but one of the major stories emerging from this event so far is the role of social media. As a result, this event may more dramatically bring social media and its role in our society to the attention of emergency managers more than any other event to date. One major reason for this is the use of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, as a means of calling for rescue and identifying locations. If you wonder how this is working right now, go to (or any other Twitter search tool) and put this hashtag #rescuemehaiti in the search box. Hashtags are quick ways that Twitter users set up to help filter through all the traffic. You will note that the Twitter users are pleading that this hashtag and a few others that have been set up only be used by families searching for loved ones or those people needing to be rescued.

There are many other ways social media is being used around this event right now. It is being used by family members to find each other. Stories are being told about how family members of missionaries found out their loved ones were OK through their Facebook page.

Here's one UK newspaper report about social media use in this disaster. It highlights organizations such as the Red Cross who have set up a means of contributing to the relief through text messages. Send a text message to 90999 and $10 will be added to your phone bill. Last I heard over $1m had been raised already and I suspect that number will go way up.

Why use social media? For one thing, it may be the only way left for many victims to communicate. Phone, power, everything gone. But if you have a smartphone with a little battery power left, you can get on the internet or send text or email. The internet has proven in numerous incidences like large hurricanes to be the most resilient channel and more and more people rely on their smartphones for internet activity.

I do believe that this event will be studied by emergency management professionals for many years to come. So many lessons to be learned. For example, if we as a nation are going to assume responsibility for response, should we not considered preparing the resources we need in advance such as heavy equipment needed for urban search and rescue, so we can deploy immediately? I suspect some of that has been done already but every news report decries the lack of equipment and resources so desperately needed now in the early hours.

But I believe one outcome of this will be incorporating social media listening in the command center. A critical role of Command is to know what is going on. Now those needing help can tell you directly--even if they don't have the phone number to the Command Post and the phones are down. To hear them, all you have to do is listen.

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