In case of emergency, tweet

By Kavya Sukumar -- Medill News Service  |  July 11, 2013 at 4:34 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 11 -- When Asiana flight 214 crashed on the runway of San Francisco International Airport, the first pieces of information that surfaced were tweets from passengers.

Use of Social media is changing the way people prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

At a hearing Tuesday, a House Homeland Security subcommittee explored, through the lens of the recent disasters, how social media are transforming the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others handle disasters.

Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., the panel’s chairwoman praised the effectiveness of social media use in emergency management efforts in Hurricane Sandy, Oklahoma tornadoes and the Boston bombings.

One in five Americans has used an emergency response app, according to an infographic created by the University of San Francisco. The infographic, shown at the hearing, also indicates one in three Americans expects help to arrive within an hour of posting on social media.

Suzanne C. DeFrancis, public affairs officer at American Red Cross, testified about how far the Red Cross has advanced electronically since the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

“The American Red Cross saw tweets from people trapped under collapsed buildings,” she said. “Like many other disaster relief organizations and emergency responders at that time, the American Red Cross did not have an efficient way to process and respond to this information.”

In March, 2012, American Red Cross opened their Digital Operations Center in Washington. The digital center engages in active “social-listening,” sifting through, analyzing and categorizing millions of pieces of social data that sprout up in the wake of an emergency.

The digital team, then sends actionable information to Red Cross staffers and volunteers at disaster sites and command centers to help in decision making.

FEMA also uses social media, but in a more automated and multi-faceted way, said Shayne Adamski testifying on behalf of the agency. Adamski, the senior manager of digital engagement, said FEMA has capabilities to analyze large quantities of data automatically.

FEMA also works with web companies such as Google by providing data in an open data format that is dynamic and can be machine read. Google uses this data to create crisis maps that show the extent of damage and relief efforts locations.

Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, testified that social media helped his agency deal with the influx of information following the tornadoes that hit the state last month:

“I personally do not have a Facebook page, nor do I know how to tweet, but I understand the importance of social media.”

One of the biggest challenges in using social media is maintaining credibility.

Rep. Brooks said, “We must be mindful of how misleading, faulty, or malicious information or pictures can escalate quickly on social media sites and potentially negatively affect response efforts.” To combat this, FEMA launched a rumor control site, which Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., likened to the myth-busting website Snopes.

“We saw that the same rumors kept rearing their heads back up,” Adamski said. The FEMA site amplifies verified information and corrects any misinformation about disaster services, Adamski said. Though the agencies have been making headway, members of Broooks’ emergency preparedness, response and communications subcommittee , as well as a panel of witnesses, agreed much more needs to be done.

“Social media is an evolutionary process,” Ashwood said. “We need to make sure that we stay as close to the curve as possible.”

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