How government could use social media to improve its response to public crises

Over the last couple of months I have been watching with interest how social media has been used during a number of crisis events and how governments have reacted to and made use of these technologies.  It has been an instructive period as we have had the opportunity to observe both man-made and natural crises.  What is clear is that governments still do not fully understand social media and how to use it in a disaster or crisis.  This post will look at some of the issues that need to be considered and the work that must be done.

The Tale of Two Types of Crisis

We have recently been able to review the impact of social media on two natural crises on the east coast of North America.  First the earthquake centred on Virginia on 24th August and then Hurricane Irene which followed almost immediately afterwards.  These events were interesting to observe because the US population has a significant number of social media savvy citizens.  The US government, at the federal, state and city level, has also started to harness the potential of social media in such situations.

The riots in London and other UK cities provoked justifiable outrage in the population as well as some diverse opinions among politicians, law enforcement and the media.  However, they also exposed how the population used social media technologies during and after the riots and how the UK authorities lacked preparedness for utilising them during a crisis.

Public Use of Social Media is Inevitable

In such situations the use of social media is inevitable.  We cannot un-invent them and without draconian powers we cannot, in a democracy, just switch them off or block them.  Furthermore, there is growing evidence to suggest that when other, more traditional sources of information fail or individuals’ access is limited they will turn to social applications on smartphones and other such devices as a preferred means to receive and share information.  For example, many office workers in Washington, DC, having been evacuated from their offices during the earthquake and with the mobile phone network down, turned to Twitter for information.  In the London borough of Ealing, I watched a situation develop where, with police forces on the ground stretched and emergency telephone numbers presumably overloaded, householders turned to Twitter and YouTube to broadcast the events happening on their street as a method of making others aware of their local situation.  I also followed Manchester taxi drivers tweeting safe routes through the city.  This was presumably their contribution to public safety, as they were broadcasting the information rather than restricting it to their own radio network.  In each situation, Twitter acted as an informal channel for communication, which in some way contributed to public safety.  Later that week I saw similar public-spirited tweeting as Hurricane Irene moved up the eastern seaboard of the USA.  It is inevitable that citizens equipped with the capability to use these tools, particularly when mobile, will increasingly turn to them in crisis situations.

Blocking Social Networks Should Not be A Crisis Response

In the UK there was undoubtedly an initial over reaction that blamed social networks and media for provoking and organising the riots.  Some politicians, police and members of the press reacted by calling for these networks and media tools to be shut down, albeit temporarily.  These reactions were hasty as in the subsequent analysis a more complex picture has emerged.  It is now widely agreed that the Blackberry Messaging  (BBM) service was used to plan and coordinate rioting.  However, the correlation between the riot events and postings on Facebook and Twitter conducted by, for example, The Guardian newspaper who analysed 2.5 million Twitter messages, revealed a lag effect between riot events and tweets suggesting that Twitter was commenting upon events rather than planning them.  There were however a couple of well reported incidents of the police detecting incitement to riot on Facebook and those responsible were arrested.

A more considered reflection on the position was taken on 25th August when the UK Home Secretary met with police, security advisors and representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Research in Motion (Blackberry).  Reports suggest that the idea of blocking social networks and media was quickly dismissed.  Hopefully all those present realised that the information on Twitter and Facebook during the UK riots in many instances not only contributed to public safety but also provided valuable additional intelligence for the emergency services and others.  The BBM service may have been used to orchestrate events but again blocking this service would also deny it to many other legitimate, peaceful users.  Public order should not be the justification for the denying these services.

Government Progress in The UK and USA on Crisis Management

The US earthquake and Hurricane Irene showed the need for a common approach as the earthquake and hurricane spanned many states.  Many of the states, cities and power utilities ran their own monitoring and reporting systems, as did a number of voluntary organisations.  Although this de-centralised approach can work, it is more effective and efficient if it is working to some underlying common strategy, principles and standards.  Similarly, the differing approaches to the use of Twitter by the various police forces during the UK riots reveals that there is much work to be done to establish a common approach.  In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been created to address these issues.  There has been considerable progress but still many challenges remain as was revealed by the Senate Committee Hearing on “Understanding the Power of Social Media as a Communication Tool in the Aftermath of Disasters”.  In the UK the Cabinet Office produces information and guidelines on “resilience” and the government’s web portal, DirectGov, provides advice on “Support After a Major Incident”.  Surprisingly this guidance is not on the Home Office site where I believe many people would expect it to be.  Although these two sites both have social media bookmarking links, their lengthy textual content makes their use both limited and difficult, especially in a crisis.  These sites also lack mobile versions, which is a pity as UK access to the Internet via mobile devices is close to 50% of all access. In comparison FEMA has launched their “Ready” and “” websites that are highly citizen focussed and they also went live with the first version of their mobile app for smartphones on 26th August.

There is still inconsistency in the UK on how public bodies interact with citizens.  Websites and dedicated smartphone applications must be seen as evolving from purely broadcast channels to increasingly collaborative channels. There needs to be more consideration of how to use social media tools as their inventors intended: Twitter, Google+ and Facebook for interaction with the public and YouTube and Flikr to broadcast information.

Volunteer Organisations Should Not Lead in A Crisis

A significant indicator that there is something missing or lagging in a government’s approach to crisis management is the rise of volunteer organisations.  Although the addition of volunteer resources in a crisis or disaster provides welcome additional support for hard-pressed emergency services, they should not be an excuse for shortcomings in public services.  The fact that volunteers set up crisis management capabilities during and after the riots in London is testimony to failure of public services.  Although support from organisations such as Google Crisis Response, the Standby Taskforce, or Crisis Mappers can be most valuable it should be exactly that, support, and neither they nor other volunteers should ever be in the lead.  That is the work of governments and emergency services.

The Growth of Crisis Mapping

In the past couple of years there has been significant innovation in on-line mapping.  Led by Google and to a lesser extent Microsoft, these capabilities have moved significantly from the expensive, high performance systems provided by companies such as ESRI or Intergraph to public platforms that are both substantially free and readily configurable.  This approach has considerable appeal for charity and NGO organisations that have limited budgets.  Organisations can use these low cost applications to gather information from employees, volunteers and also the public.  Software to help analyse (or curate) reported information can be provided to ensure reports are accurate and on-line mapping techniques provide a rapid, information-rich method of presenting the information back to governments, monitoring organisations, NGOs and of course the local population.

Ushahidi – A Technology Leader for Crisis Management

At the forefront of these innovations has been a not for profit company called Ushahidi.  Born out of a need for post election violence monitoring in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi has developed into a sophisticated platform of capabilities that can be used to support crisis and disaster management situations. The platform can be configured to accept inputs from SMS, Twitter, a web form and a dedicated smartphone app.  This multiple channel input approach is vital in any crisis or disaster situation as people will not have consistent access to a single medium and access through mobile devices is likely to be critical.  The readily available, graphically based output is also key as it provides a rapid way to deliver a significant amount of information based on the location of the crisis or disaster.  It is not surprising that Ushahidi deployments sprang up in the two crisis situations under discussion. In West London the Brixton Incident Map was set up within hours and some time later the UK Riots Clean–up Map went live.  In the US the impending hurricane caused a number of Ushahidi deployments to spring up, including an Irene Recovery Map and notably the Severe Weather Map (no longer deployed) that was set up by a local authority (New York Office of Emergency Management).

Ushahidi, although clearly a leader in crisis mapping, is not the only platform available and almost daily there are new offerings appearing.  Capabilities such as Google Maps, Trendmap or Gathering Point can be used to monitor the raw (un-analysed) output from social media channels such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The Government Needs to Get Social

What is clear above all else is that there is still both a lack of understanding of the impact of social media and a lack of policy, plans and standards for how to use them within UK government (central and local) and the emergency services.  What is required from the government is a new approach to disaster and crisis management that utilises the valuable information that now flows in abundance through the social networks and media.

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that social media is here to stay and can be used positively in both natural and man-made disasters and crises.  Next a community of the right people (those willing and able to drive change) needs to be established.  This must include politicians, emergency service officers, technologists and even experienced NGO representatives.  This group needs only a modest budget to experiment with and explore potential solutions (both procedural and technical) to the UK’s crisis and disaster management needs.  However, in doing so open technology standards, iterative development and public security models may need to be adopted. This will necessitate a level of change that will test the leadership of those involved. I believe that existing experience and readily available technology dictate that large studies and lengthy government procurements are not required.

Appropriate methods and channels for gathering information must be explored. This will include not only existing channels (e.g. emergency telephone numbers) but also the newer communication channels such as SMS, other messaging systems and the social networks and media.  Citizens should all be aware of how to use these “emergency social channels” as they are the modern equivalent of the “999” or “112” number.

Policy and guidance can then be produced and passed to local government, emergency services and other contributing parties to ensure they develop coherent plans and procedures.  Furthermore, common standards should be developed for information exchange so that inter-regional differences do not arise.

There must also be policy, plans and training for how these new enhanced capabilities will be incorporated into existing command and control and emergency planning systems and procedures. These capabilities should be available as a matter of course, live and monitored at least at a low level until a crisis occurs at which point they can very quickly be brought up to their full operational capability.  In any crisis, in what emergency and medical services refer to as “the golden hour” when most lives can be saved and potentially dangerous situations contained or averted, time should not be wasted setting up systems to make use of social media or waiting for volunteers.

Finally, there needs to be a coherent and consistent multi-channel approach to the information government and the emergency services communicate to the population during a disaster or crisis. This needs to consider content, style and timing for both traditional broadcast media (radio, television and websites) and the newer social channels.

Last Chance Before the Next Crisis

I believe that there are many challenges ahead for the UK government (not least with the Olympic Games later this year).  They are not alone; many other governments are now lagging behind the technical crisis and disaster management capabilities commonly deployed in the NGO sector.  The USA is clearly ahead of the UK in terms of providing crisis or disaster advice to citizens through multiple channels and much can be learned from this.  Governments need to be alive to the numerous channels their citizens use and develop the policy, guidelines and plans to gather, analyse and disseminate information in a common and consistent manner that is well understood and simple.  There also needs to be a “toolbox” of technical capabilities that can be drawn from, rapidly configured and deployed against pre-planned scenario templates that can be simply adjusted to the crisis or disaster.

“All the pieces of the jigsaw are on the table”, but it will take some considerable political will and leadership to assemble them.  Let us hope that this is forthcoming before crisis or disaster strikes again, as next time there will be even less excuse.
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