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Saving Lives 2.0: How Social Media will Change Disasters and Response


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Keynote presentation from National Association of Government Webmasters 2013 Friday Focus.

Keynote presentation from National Association of Government Webmasters 2013 Friday Focus.

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  • Go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves. Do you have a social network account? Do you know someone on a social network?
  • This is where you can find more information about me. For anyone on Twitter, I highly encourage you to livetweet my presentation. All this goodness shouldn’t be constrained to just one room, I always say. And for those of you who aren’t on Twitter and don’t understand what I just said, I just gave you carte blanche to check your Blackberry during my presentation, just tell people you’re “livetweeting.”
  • Nothing happens outside of the context of history, so when describing a new phenomenon, it is right to review what got us here and establish the groundwork for today’s topic. So. In the beginning, God created… Well, let’s skip ahead a bit and talk about disasters.
  • Ask any emergency manager, all disasters are local. And they certainly used to be.
  • And our definition of disasters should be as broad as can be. Because something like this, a simple kitchen fire, can be disastrous to a family.
  • And something like this can be disastrous to an entire region. Both are disasters, and both have wide-ranging effects on the people affected by them.
  • It used to be that disasters were localized. While Three Mile Island was terrifying, folks in Oregon weren’t worried about it. We all read about the 1996 Olympics bombing in the paper the next day, but that was it. The Northridge earthquake unfolded over days, and while we remember the Santa Monica freeway and that apartment building, we just saw static media shots of the damage. The Red River floods devastated the region, but how many of you saw it unfold? Hurricane Andrew blasted south Florida, but all we remember is the lines at the FEMA pick up points.
  • But in 2001, everything changed.
  • How many people remember every second of that morning? Remember where you were? Remember how much TV you watched? How many times you saw those buildings collapse? It was the first time most of us had experienced a disaster.
  • The sheer scope of the television coverage from that days is months long. Every single news outlet in the country showed the disaster. Live. In color. From as many angles as they could. And repeated it. Over. And over. And over.
  • And the effects of seeing that are real, and quantifiable, and prolonged. Not only for the people there, who are suffering more than any of us can imagine. But across the country, we collectively suffered from the attack. Analysis of 1,657,985 responses showed that between the fourth quarter of 2001 and 2003, between 900,000 and 1.3 million adult former smokers started using tobacco again.
  • Then 2005 came.
  • Are your memories of Hurricane Katrina different than those of 9/11? We didn’t watch the disaster happen. We watched it get worse.
  • We watched real people suffer and die. We saw how disasters affected communities that looked just like ours. Homes flooded. Holes beaten through roofs to escape rising waters. People that could’ve been our neighbors, our friends, our families, us. This was the first time we saw what a disaster felt like.
  • This was also the first time we’d seen the abject failure of disaster response. From the Superdome to the Convention Center, we finally understood what it meant to be on your own. Bodies propped up in lawn chairs and covered with a blanket because there was simply nothing else to do with them. Helicopters dropping cases of water bottles and flying away without ever touching down.
  • And the 24-hour news networks were only too happy to show the destruction and devastation. Reporters like, most famously, Shep Smith of Fox News, actually went out in New Orleans – where responders were too afraid to – and video’ed entire settlements of families on overpasses, huddled against the sun.
  • Then by2010, the national public really started to act and respond to disasters.
  • After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, people no longer wanted to be stunned by the images on TV. They’d seen what disasters looked like. They knew what the terror and hopelessness looked like. They could ameliorate it. Haiti was the first “social” disaster.
  • The American Red Cross’s Text 2 Help program really kicked into high gear, raising more than $22 MILLION. People from all over the country and world saw a need, and were able to make a difference in the response. Overwhelmingly, and every time since then, they’ve done the same. We’ve crowd-sourced disaster funding.
  • But some people wanted to do more. They wanted to help actually respond. And they did. Using the Ushahidi mapping tool (originally developed to help map voting irregularities and problems in Africa), they did. Ushahidi set up an SMS shortcode that people in Haiti could use. They would input a need, anything from a collapsed building to a request for food and water to violence. The system of worldwide volunteers would translate the message, geolocate it, approve it, map it and make it available to responders to help prioritize need.
  • And it was widely used. While technology and living arrangements in Haiti were far from optimal, cell phones were nearly ubiquitous. Reports poured in from all over the country, from Port-au-Prince to the wilderness. All geo-located and approved and ranked and ordered by volunteers. The software was freely available for download by anyone the world over and helped demonstrate the scale of the disaster.
  • Patrick Meier, the head of Ushahidi, found that the very best in the world found the work these volunteers were doing was making a difference, and at times, found the Ushahidi maps to be the most effective triage tool they had.
  • Disasters of all shapes and sizes are now influenced by social media, but why? It’s simply because in the last five years, the public has integrated social media into everything they do. It’s as natural and ubiquitous as breathing nowadays.
  • First let’s start at the beginning. People get online. LOTS of people get online. I’ve highlighted some of the best demonstrations of that: nearly 80% of Americans get online; more than two-thirds of each of the three major racial/ethnic groups get online; three-quarters or more of each age group under 65 gets online; more than 80% of each income group over $30,000/year gets online; nearly three-quarters of every education group besides those with no high school diploma gets online. In fact, statistically, the only folks that don’t get online are the uneducated and very old. Remember though, these stats are from January, 2011. Who here thinks the percentages on ALL of these demographics has gone up?
  • When looking at what those internet users do online, right around two-thirds of EACH demographic, except folks over 65, uses social networking sites. And that age group is the quickest adopter of social media.
  • But really, the most telling stat is this one, I think. If there’s one stat in the world that demonstrates how much people have integrated social media into their lives, it’s this one.
  • In fact, the research has gotten so good, that we can now tell who is a typical user of a social network. This is great for us, because so many people come up to me and ask, “Jim, which social network should we be on?” And I’d give that great public health answer, “Well, it depends.” We’d then talk about which demographic they were looking to reach and we could craft a plan from it. If you want to reach kids, use Tumblr or Instagram. Looking for family medical decision-makers (read: women), try Pinterest.
  • Now you’ve got the lay of the land.So what does that mean for us in disaster response? According to a study done by the American Red Cross in 2012, more than half of Americans looked for information on a disaster online. And most interesting to me is the bottom two rows: the second-to-last is Government websites, clocking in at 20%, while the bottom one is social media, clocking in at 19%. So, let me rhetorically ask you, why are we so gung-ho about posting stuff on our websites, but not on social media?
  • Some more information from the Red Cross survey, read slide, focus on 12 percent of Americans, not Americans who’ve been through a disaster. That’s nearly 35 million people!!! Also, note that 77% number. How many of you checked on friends after the West explosion?
  • Given the fact that disasters have evolved to include social media, and social media has taken over our lives, we live in an era of “global” disasters. Anything that happens anywhere could potentially affect us.
  • We can’t escape from them at home.
  • We don’t just get sober statistics and numbers of emergency responders in the paper the next day. We see the pain in people’s eyes, the houses destroyed.
  • But we also now have the ability to help respond to those disasters. We can help ease that suffering, that pain, in ways that we never could before because we were miles and miles away.
  • In three important ways.
  • Read this
  • First off, information responders provide to the public. This is an important one, because this isn’t a big change. Every emergency manager out there will tell you that “getting the word out” is an important part of responding. It’s just that social media has turned that idea on it’s head. I have five examples of the new world of information dissemination.
  • FDNY’s standard protocol for emergency requests sent via social media is to redirect them to call 911. And that’s how her night started off. People wrote to @FDNY on Twitter asking for help with evacuation or whatever. She rebuffed them, as is required due to department policy. Now, I’m not saying this course of action is wrong; it’s the only way public safety agencies can handle what would most assuredly be a flood of requests. There’s no easy way to translate tweets into the 911 system, it wasn’t designed that way.But then one person tweeted her asking for help. She directed them to 911, and he replied that he couldn’t call because the power was out and cell networks were overloaded. He was in a flooding house and Twitter was his only means of communication, the only way he could ask for help. Emily found a supervisor and they figured out a protocol that formally redirected people to 911, but if they couldn’t do that, had her figuring out which borough dispatcher was the right one and placing an internal call to them to request help.We’ll never know if Emily’s quick thinking and flexibility saved lives, but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Social media was an useful as any dispatch system.
  • And then, Boston. Many, many of us lived the events there through social media.How many of you checked on someone who you knew was in Boston? How many used social media to do it? Messaged them on Facebook?How many of you watched the explosions on YouTube? Or supplemented your media coverage by checking social media? How many of you expressed solidarity, hope, prayers or sadness online?
  • Boston PD, that first day, found social media to be SUCH a powerful force, this is the radio call they made while the bomb squad searched the hundreds of bags left all around the finish line.
  • This tweet was sent mere minutes after the arrest of the second suspect in the Boston bombings. Approved on-site by tweeting Deputy Commissioner John Daley it demonstrates how quickly information moves these days.
  • This is Calgary, Edmonton. Under water. It didn’t make the US news too much this year, but they had flooding earlier this summer that swamped their downtown. The floods also swamped their communications channels. The city’s website was under such a stress from the public looking for information, it crashed. So they turned to Twitter to disseminate official information. And when the police department’s account got thrown into “twitter jail” they used a local constable’s account. Calgary continued to message and disseminate information throughout the disaster come hell or high water.
  • Social media isn’t only useful for massive, huge, world-changing disasters, y’know. A couple of weeks ago, my hometown made the national news due to a botched demolition that fell into an active Salvation Army store. Six people ended up dying, with more than a dozen others getting transported to hospitals. The fire department, being the coordinators of PA Task Force 1, the local Urban Search and Rescue team, was incident commander. Police maintained the scene. Emergency management and Red Cross supported the responders and response. The Health Department was not, and should not, have been called in. Because things were so busy for those other agencies, the social media aspect of the response ended up not happening, despite massive media interest and posting on social media networks, especially Twitter. I got the call from our Commissioner’s Office to start retweeting the response agencies posts and sharing information updates as they were approved for release. Not as part of a JIC, but just as a way to broaden the scope of the City’s public information releases. The problem was that I was returning from a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina and was watching what was going on on CNN in the airport bar! So I pulled out my trusty iphone, connected to a power source and went to work. We retweeted every response agency’s tweet. We looked for elucidating information and diagrams. We gave updates on public transit changes. We communicated the boundaries of the response and asked folks to stay away to the responders could do their work. At one point, our account name was the second-highest trending term on Twitter in Philadelphia. We became the single, best source for official information release from a City agency. Not because we were specially placed in a JIC or because we were privy to inside information. It’s because I had a few hours to kill in an airport bar and a phone. That’s the power of social media today in emergencies.
  • My final example comes from Washington State, site of the I-5 Bridge Collapse on the Skagit River. A good friend of mine, Marcus Deyerin was the assigned PIO for the response and because cell service was so overwhelmed in the area, he resorted to pushing information via the data connection on his phone through Twitter. When data was overwhelmed, he submitted the messages to Twitter via text message.
  • We, as responders are also learning that we’re not the only ones with information about disasters. The public is generally there and they’ve got social media to spread the word.
  • One only has to see images like this.
  • Or this.
  • Poorly composed, terribly lit, completely without context or expertise.
  • How can emergency managers look at these images and not see that this is ground-truth. This is the intelligence every IC begs for in a disaster. With geo-location, we can see exactly what’s happening, exactly where it’s happening, and in many cases, exactly AS it’s happening. All we have to do is accept that the public can be our media and give us information.
  • My best example of how partnerships and friendships on social media has helped me in emergencies is this case. Who remembers this one? It’s a good one. That’s right, it’s the quarantine of Delta Flight 3163. The story starts at Midway Airport in Chicago where domestic flight 3163 landed carrying passengers who had transferred from an international flight originating somewhere in Africa. One of those passengers started exhibiting a rash, someone said monkeypox, and before you knew it, the plane was quarantined away from the terminal, surrounded by CDC and police.I found out about the quarantined plane on Twitter. I got a message from a friend, a former fire chief in Arizona, who knew I was interested in this kind of stuff. He’d heard about it from a news producer in New York City who knew he liked emergency stuff. As soon as I heard about it, I messaged a risk communication expert I knew in the Seattle area. All personal relationships built over time with trust and reciprocal help.The reason this example is about relationships and not about social media monitoring is that monitoring isn’t perfect. The day before this event, Lady Gaga had posted something on Twitter about how she had quarantined herself to work on a new album. The search term was useless at that point, given all of her fans retweeting that message. I only found out about it because of the network I had built and maintain until this day. It never would’ve existed if I hadn’t reached out and made friends with these folks.
  • San Bruno fire
  • And the social media aspects of Sandy didn’t stop with the response. The recovery was studded with social media. In some cases, like that green/yellow/red picture there where the public was asked to crowd-source damage assessments to help FEMA focus on the areas where they were needed the most. And in other cases where the public took matters into their own hands via social media to help with recovery. Groups like Occupy Sandy provided troops to check on trapped folks until the Red Cross and National Guard could get there. Blogs like Sandy Sucks acted as clearinghouses for information on recovery needs and opportunities. And even non-affiliated folks did something, like getting the wifi up at a Starbucks, or hooking up a series of power strips so folks could re-charge their phones. All of this was almost always organized by social media.
  • But the big test of VOST came last summer, when a wildland fire started up by Shadow Lake, on Mount Washington, in Oregon. While the fire was of little danger of affecting the public, it rapidly grew out of control. The federal Incident Management Team’s PIO wanted to keep an eye on social media, so she activated the nascent VOST to support the official response. 15 emergency managers from around the world conducted targeted searches and monitoring around the Shadow Lake wildland fire and reported back to the PIO on what the internet was saying, providing situational awareness to the Incident Commander.
  • At one point, the VOST found a tiny little blog had posted a blog post on the ORFire teams using a tiny little bridge to get to an area to stage resources. The blogger snapped some photos of the trucks, and complained that, while the truckers were placing themselves in danger from using this historical, rickety bridge, they risked damaging a key thoroughfare that the local used. In hours, the VOST identified the blogger, and connected them with the IMT PIO, who coordinated with the Operations and Planning Sections to ensure that no more trucks used that bridge. While this situation may have stopped at this tiny, completely unheard of blog, the complaints may very well have gone viral and generated significant public outcry directed at the response for their tone-deafness and heavy-handed approach. Being forced to deal with this outcry would have undoubtedly taken the IC and PIO away from their primary goal, fighting the fire.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Saving Lives 2.0: How Social Media will Change Disasters and Response James Garrow Philadelphia Department of Public Health
    • 2. Introductions
    • 3. @jgarrow
    • 4. History
    • 5. All Disasters Are Local
    • 6. 2001
    • 7. 2005
    • 8. 2010
    • 9. Social Media
    • 10. 4/2012, Pew Internet & American Life Project 78% More than 2/3! More than 4/5!
    • 11. 2/2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project Only demographic under 52%
    • 12. Between six and eleven percent of Americans would interrupt sex to check social media messages!
    • 13. Information Seeking in a Disaster Wow, that’s low! Wow, that’s high!8/2012, American Red Cross
    • 14. Red Cross Survey • 12% of the American public has used social media in a disaster • After seeing emergency info on a social media site, 77% have checked on their family and friends • Nearly 40% would use social media to let loved ones know they were safe after a disaster
    • 15. “Global” Disasters
    • 16. Social media has brought every disaster into our living rooms
    • 17. Social media has shown us the after-effects of every disaster
    • 18. Social media has allowed us to participate in every disaster
    • 19. How Disasters Happen, Are Responded To, and Remembered has Changed
    • 20. 1. Information to the Public 2. Information from the Public 3. The Public as Responders
    • 21. Information to the Public
    • 22. Emily Rahimi @FDNY
    • 23. Information from the Public
    • 24. The Public as Responders
    • 25. "One of those trucks went across the bridge!" she told me. "Wow. Even the school bus doesn't cross that bridge. It's not designed for large trucks. When we saw them going up that road, we wanted to run out and wave our hands, yelling wrong way, wrong way!“
    • 26. Wrap-up
    • 27. The world has changed.
    • 28. Every bit of it.
    • 29. Disasters are no longer over there.
    • 30. They are here. Now. In real living color.
    • 31. We can use social media to deal with those disasters, today.
    • 32. We just need to embrace it.