Red Cross widening crisis response via social media venues

Online messaging augments and supplements traditional emergency communications.

Online messaging augments and supplements traditional emergency communications

The American Red Cross has a message for anyone who thinks Twitter and Facebook are just places for people to discuss what they had for lunch: A social networking site might save your life.

“The social media platform makes it very easy for people to organize communities and information,” says Jackie Mitchell, director of marketing and communication for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. “We really hope this could be a mechanism for us to communicate in a disaster.”

A recent Red Cross survey (PDF) of more than 1,000 adults who regularly use the Web found that 69 percent want emergency responders to monitor social media for users needing assistance. About 74 percent expect help to arrive within an hour.

Half the respondents said they think aid workers are already finding information about emergencies on social media sites, which is true. But the Red Cross and other agencies are trying to do more.

The Red Cross conducted the survey in advance of an Aug. 12 summit in Washington that brought together emergency responders, government officials and social media gurus to determine how the Web can be used to deal with disasters and other crises.

The 911 back-up plan

Calling 911 remains the go-to option for anyone in an emergency, the Red Cross warns, but social media can be—and already has been in some cases—a good backup when a phone’s not available or lines are overloaded. According to the Red Cross survey, 28 percent of respondents “definitely would” use social media to alert friends and family that they’re OK, while 21 percent said they “probably would.”

A white paper companion to the survey compiled before the summit and posted on a Red Cross blog lists numerous examples of people using social networking sites to alert authorities to emergencies.

For instance, two Australian girls, ages 10 and 12, used Facebook to alert friends when trapped in a storm drain in September 2009. A friend then contacted emergency services, which located and rescued the girls.

Early this year, a Canadian woman trapped in rubble after the January earthquake in Haiti sent a text message that reached Canadian Foreign Affairs officials. Those officials alerted responders that could dig her out. Because of geolocation technology on her phone, those responders pinpointed where she was.

As in that incident, experts say increasingly common GPS technology mixed with social media go a long way toward locating people who are in trouble.

But it’s going to take “a consistent and streamlined” mechanism for emergency responders to filter all the data online and respond in a timely way, says Mitchell.

For the Red Cross itself, its network of volunteers and what Mitchell calls “ambassadors”—regular folks who stand behind the Red Cross’s efforts—are the eyes and ears. Though she only has three people on her staff, Mitchell says she has 30 volunteers and about 2,000 ambassadors who gather information for the Red Cross and help where they can until trained responders arrive.

“It is the culture here to leverage the expertise of anyone willing to donate it,” Mitchell says, whether that means help in the middle of a crisis or brainstorming for an hour in an office.

Gathering the data

The Red Cross survey found that social media is the fourth-most-popular source for disaster news after TV, radio and online news sites. But for aid agencies that need to gather, monitor and verify online information about crises, the capability for comprehensive compiling is not fully there yet.

“It’s going to take a lot of ideas,” Mitchell says.

And lots of ideas came to light during the summit and through the #crisisdata Twitter hashtag the Red Cross is using to seek out users’ thoughts on how to best use social media in emergencies. Some recent examples:

@kate30_CU: Why not crowd-source HAM Radio translation? Cheaper than $ device. Use peripheral volunteers to post as Tweets or into Ushahidi. #crisisdata

@poplifegirl: Interesting statistic – Facebook is the #3 site visited by users 65 or older #crisisdata

@CyberlandGal: Website uses crowd-sourcing technology to help Pakistani flood victims find food, water & shelter: #crisisdata

Crowdsourcing was a popular topic discussed at the summit and is a technique that agencies will almost certainly use for gathering information, Mitchell says. Disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti have proven that social media users documenting “very small moments” can come together to tell a big story.

Initiatives such as CNN’s iReport, the open source Spot.Us and Ushahidi have made it somewhat easier to aggregate crowdsourced information. For instance, Ushahidi, which brings together cell phone location data, e-mails, and Web information on a particular topic onto a map and timeline, has aggregated data on the huge snowstorm last winter in Washington, swine flu and an election in India.

The Red Cross is working on how best to verify that information and protect users’ privacy. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department verified information about the area’s 2007 wildfires by sending direct messages to users tweeting about the fire, asking them to call the department. Many complied.

When it comes to protecting users’ and others’ privacy during disasters like the Haiti earthquake, organizations like the Red Cross and others that aggregate data have made efforts to maintain private databases. Government sites are now also using disclaimers to warn users that the information they’re posting will be viewable by the public.

“The Red Cross cares a lot that people’s dignity is protected,” Mitchell says. “Whatever solution we come up with is going to have to be nimble enough to change with whatever privacy laws are put in place dealing with social media.”

Pulling it all together

Mitchell says participants in the Aug. 12 summit are working on a follow-up white paper to document ideas presented as a first step toward a comprehensive plan.

Along with the crowdsourcing idea, summit participants suggested pre-installed smart phone apps that would provide needed information about local crises, similar to an Emergency Broadcast System for phones. Mitchell says the Chicago chapter of the Red Cross already has a designated “listener” who monitors social networking venues for relevant information.

Perhaps the biggest thing, Mitchell says, was simply how the summit itself was conducted—with a “democratic, open dialogue.”

“We really thought we could come up with a better way if we engaged a lot of people in the conversation,” she says, not unlike a smaller version of social media itself.

4 ways to use crowdsourcing effectively

Some ways the American Red Cross and other agencies are using crowdsourcing to compile information about crises:

1. Build networks. The Red Cross of Greater Chicago has a network of hundreds of volunteers and “ambassadors” who can alert the agency to emergencies and developments as they happen.

2. Find experts. Get experts to work within the networks you’ve built to contribute ideas and lead efforts to gather information during crises.

3. Verify and compile. Find social media users with a firsthand view of a crisis, make contact and ask them to contribute to your pool of information.

4. Collaborate. Get involved in online conversations with other aid organizations to filter crisis information and direct it to agencies that can offer help

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