Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Using Social Media to Enhance Situational Awareness

Listening to relevant posts from the public on social media platforms helps governments drive action and respond to emergencies.

Social media has amply demonstrated its abilities as an outbound tool, a means for government to push information out to its constituents. Municipalities tweet emergency information during crises. Politicians rally friends on Facebook.

Even as these active uses of social media come into their own, newer passive uses are evolving. Rather than shout, government agencies listen: They harvest the chatter, sifting for relevant mentions that might help them to better respond to crises and emergencies.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Tulane University students used Ushahidi, an open source software platform, to aid in the massive cleanup effort. Participants in the Oil Spill Crisis Map project helped visualize data on maps by harvesting reports generated through email, text messaging, Twitter and other social media platforms.

Governments increasingly are looking to that kind of social media monitoring to help keep tabs on the mood and activities of those who receive services.

Disaster Relief

Social media monitoring is a relatively new practice in state and local government. It had its start in the retail arena, where uses can be fairly sophisticated, as businesses labor to target their marketing and advertising to likely subsets of buyers.

Still, headway is being made in governmental and quasi-governmental organizations. One of the clearest examples comes from the American Red Cross, which in March 2012 established a digital operations center at its national headquarters. Built on technology platform Radian6, the center’s console displays a running stream of social media mentions based on keywords of interest to the agency. “Red Cross” alone draws some 4,000 mentions a day.

Wendy Harman is the social strategy director for the American Red Cross. Photo by David Kidd.

“We are trying to give the public a seat at the table of our operation,” said Wendy Harman, social strategy director for the American Red Cross. At first the system was set to watch just for names of the agency, but it has evolved. “Now we can also see mentions of a given disaster, anybody talking about an earthquake, a fire, a tornado, a bus crash,” she said. “Anything like that, we can see it in a visual format that is easy to digest.”

This has practical implications. 

“It is becoming an expected part of situational awareness. Every morning during a disaster, we produce a report that is distributed widely, with graphs and data points, so everybody is on the same page as to what the affected public is saying,” Harman said. “We know what people are going through, we know where there are pockets of need and we know what to watch out for during the course of a day of responding.”

In a time of tight budgets, some are achieving similarly promising results with less expensive technology. Take, for example, the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency in Vancouver, Wash., where planners use the Twitter app TweetDeck to follow conversations.

Most staff members in the agency run two computer screens: one for daily work and one for watching tweets that are filtered according to relevant keywords and hashtags. “Anytime something begins to trend or starts getting popular, you’ll see the TweetDeck screen start moving a little bit faster and that will catch our eye. It may be an earthquake or maybe a celebrity has died,” said Cheryl Bledsoe, emergency management division manager.

During the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the monitoring system helped city managers control the situation. As citizens tweeted their concerns about the vaccine’s validity and availability, managers were able to make correct information available. Such capabilities give responders a clearer view of the situation during a crisis. “You are getting the news on the ground: ‘This is what I am seeing,’” Bledsoe said. “So it validates a lot of what you are seeing on the emergency response side of the house. It helps us piece together what it looks like outside our offices.”

Some at the municipal level are getting the job done with even less sophisticated tools. Administrators at the Washington, D.C., public library simply monitor neighborhood email lists for mentions of their operations.

“This way we get the most specific information about what people think about us,” said the city’s chief librarian, Ginnie Cooper. “Someone says there is a really good children’s librarian in this place and the moms love them. Or maybe there is a complaint of some sort. Then that becomes something we can act on.”

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.

Featured Resources