Emergency Managers Should Learn From Web 2.0 Responses to Wildfires and School Shootings

Disaster management should maximize social media's potential based on past Web 2.0 experiences.

by / September 17, 2009
Lessons From the Front Internally Created

This article was adapted from a presentation by Jeannette Sutton at the 2009 World Conference of Disaster Management.

We know a lot about how people react in disasters, and emergency managers can draw on that knowledge and background. For example, we know how people communicate in disasters, and we know how to build effective warning systems so failures are designed out. We know how to develop messages that most directly impact people so they will take protective action. And we know how to craft preparedness campaigns to help people prepare for disasters. But can we take what we know and apply it to the use of social media in disasters? To answer this, I draw from research on three cases: the Virginia Tech shooting, the Southern California wildfires of 2007, and the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Immediately after the Virginia Tech school shooting on April 16, 2007, my colleague Leysia Palen, who is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, and I sent two graduate students to Blacksburg, Va., to investigate how people were sharing information, what tools they were using, and from what sources they were receiving their information. When the graduate students returned from the field after talking with students, faculty and community members, we started gathering data online to learn how that community used social media.

We focused on Facebook. We archived the different groups that emerged around issues of information sharing and condolences related to the school shooting, and ones that had the largest numbers of participants. And then we looked at the conversations between people.

What was most interesting about the ways students and others used Facebook during this event was how coordinated the information sharing was and how people were instrumental in gathering knowledge from different parts of the United States to answer a particular question: Who were the deceased? Late in the morning of the Virginia Tech shooting, the university announced that there were a number of deaths. It initially didn't say how many. But students immediately began identifying people they knew had been killed and posted the information to various Facebook groups. By the late afternoon, the university announced that there were 32 deaths. At that point, we observed students and others on Facebook ramp up their investigation and information sharing to the point that by the next day, they had identified all 32 victims before the university officially released their names.

This is an amazing feat. They used their informal networks to identify the names of the students who had been killed. This does raise the question about whether this information should be shared on an open platform like Facebook. But the power of collective intelligence that was observed through Facebook showed that there's a great deal of power in these distributed networks and that wisdom can rise up through the crowd.

What's also important is that in the lists we looked at, we never saw a wrong name. And there was turn taking: Every time someone listed a death, they had to include their source. This certainly lends some credibility to how people are sharing information.

Where People Turn

The Southern California wildfires of 2007 led to the evacuation of much of San Diego. During this disaster, I worked with Palen and Irina Shklovski, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Irvine. Shklovski went to evacuation sites to ask people how they were sharing information

and what information was most valuable to them.

After the evacuation orders were lifted, we quickly developed an online survey to draw a broader sample of respondents who were affected by the wildfires. To distribute the survey, we used social networks and community forums that we knew technology users were already utilizing. Although the survey we conducted didn't represent the entire Southern California population, it was instructive about how tech-savvy users were using technology during the wildfire.

Survey respondents said they first turned to major media. That wasn't a surprise. We haven't reached a tipping point -- we don't even know what the tipping point is -- in terms of people turning to social media first.

But in disasters information seeking is intensified. People will look for information, and if it's not coming fast enough or isn't perceived as being accurate, they look somewhere else. We discovered that many people who went online for information found that there was misinformation coming from the public authorities and major media. In contrast, many of these information seekers had access to information that was accurate at the local level, so they provided that information as a corrective. There was a perception that the locals were more accurate than the authorities.

In another example, the Democratic National Convention of 2008 in Denver attracted international attention, so there was significant concern about a public disruption. It was a National Special Security Event, which meant the Secret Service was in charge. But the city and county of Denver had responsibility largely over the emergency operations and the Joint Information Center, in coordination with federal authorities.

During the convention, I had a number of researchers embedded in the Joint Information Center. We observed the ways public officials, namely public information officers, looked at and used information that was flowing among the social-media-using public. We looked at how the public and public officials used these channels.

There were two key pieces of information: The first was that the Democratic National Convention Committee validated the importance of social media for this convention. The committee credentialed 180 blogs at the beginning of the event. Every credentialed blogger had the same legitimacy as major media in the eyes of the convention. The bloggers had access to all the press events, and they were doing interviews. The second point was Denver's IT department lifted its restrictions on social media. Normally government agencies are restricted from accessing social media sites.

During the convention, government workers could log on to Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, and use streaming video and social networking applications. But what we found largely was that there was no plan in place. Many people didn't know how to use social media. They weren't aware of the value of the information that was flowing, or resources that could be put toward monitoring these information sources. But there was monitoring of blogs, and that can lead to some very important information. We didn't see many public disruptions during the convention, so that may have been a reason why there was less attention to breaking news through social media channels -- and there wasn't a lot of information posted on the credentialed blogs about what was going on outside of the political commentary.

Common Concerns

Many emergency managers I've talked with have expressed concerns about social media as a channel -- that the public at large is going to share misinformation. They also say there isn't a sense of organization within the online communications.

This isn't an entirely accurate perception of how social media is being used. It's very organized. It just isn't organized through a central point. And it's self-correcting. Those who participate on sites

like Wikipedia, or are invested in a particular conversation, have a stake in ensuring the information is correct. So they put out notifications to correct misinformation. Largely it's accurate, as were the people who were posting information during the Virginia Tech shooting. They were verifying their sources and saying how they knew it was correct.

Another set of disaster communications I've looked at was the use of Twitter during the Tennessee Valley coal ash incident in December 2008. During this disaster, a coal ash retaining pond ruptured and resulted in environmental destruction that has been described as being 50 times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What I saw on Twitter during that incident was participants consistently linking their comments to blogs and scientific articles. They used these links to validate their information.

Emergency managers also have expressed concerns that rumors and misinformation flow through social media. This is especially so because people can post anonymously. This is a valid concern, particularly because these channels enable information sharing to flow quickly in what's considered a "viral" manner. But as we saw in our wildfire research, misinformation or inaccuracies didn't come only from the public -- it also came from the major media and public officials. Social media provides one point across a vast number of information points.

From a sociological perspective, rumors aren't pathological. They aren't intentionally malicious forms of information sharing. Instead, informal networks of people are improvising in situations of intensified information seeking, which occurs in disasters. If officials don't release news to the public quickly enough, the public might make conjectures to figure out what's happening. This is an important reason for emergency managers to be integrated into these communication channels, so they are relaying fast, accurate information and preventing rumors.

Other Benefits

Social media can be an information source about the public. For instance, during the H1N1 influenza outbreak, popularly called the swine flu, there were reports that Twitter was inducing hysteria. I didn't observe this phenomenon that was being reported by major media outlets. Instead I saw people sharing information and trying to interpret symptoms, preventive activity and the severity of the outbreak. What's great about social media is it has provided one of the first opportunities to observe how people interpret information from authorities. Never before has there been the opportunity to look in on people's conversations and observe the myriad ways that they make sense of risk communication.

Even information that's perceived to be chatter, misinformation or rumor can lead to a greater awareness of what's happening on the ground because it gives emergency managers insight into people's interpretations of warnings and other risk messages.

Risk communicators now have the opportunity to craft messages based on how people respond to them. They can observe the public communicating about shared information, and new information can be pushed out to correct inaccuracies.

Social media also benefits disaster-affected communities. Emergency responders often see people converge at a disaster scene who desperately want to assist. With new Web 2.0 tools, we are now observing of online convergence for sharing information. People across the United States can come together to organize information online when locals don't have the time, access or resources to do so themselves. This happened following hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. As the hurricanes rolled in, distributed networks used the social networking platform Ning and created a mashup of hurricane information. Participants gathered news feeds from Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and annotated maps with information about shelters, evacuation routes and other resources -- all on one platform. This was done in a decentralized way. Distributed and decentralized volunteers organized themselves and gave hundreds of hours of their time.

We also have found that being able to participate in social media is beneficial to those who are directly affected

by disaster -- those who might be considered disaster victims -- because it gives them something to do. When you have been evacuated from your home and community, you don't have the ability to participate onsite or provide hands-on resources. Communicating with others can help victims cope because it lets them share and talk about the event. Community forums where people can dialog with one another provide a very important resource for coping.

Real Concerns

Some emergency managers I've talked to are very concerned about "super-users" -- malicious users who use social media during a disaster's immediate aftermath to cause additional havoc and insert misinformation that could lead to destructive activities.

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 is one incident that seems to support this concern. One major media outlet and other eye witness reports claimed the terrorists were using these networked platforms to learn how citizens were sharing information.

But by and large, sociological research has shown that emergency managers should expect the public to act altruistically during a disaster's immediate aftermath. People will reach out to one another to share information and resources because they are genuinely concerned. What's uncommon are antisocial behaviors -- panic, looting and malicious attacks. Sure, these things occur, but not as widely as the mass media would like the public to believe.

And the consequences of emphasizing antisocial behaviors, instead of the "pro-social" behaviors that are regularly seen in disasters, are that resources and personnel might be misdirected or detoured. And if public officials don't think there's value in the information flowing through social media, they might cut off connectivity to it. Ultimately if resources aren't put in the right place, lives could be lost. I have no idea if choosing not to view and monitor social media could lead to loss of lives. But that potential is there.

My concern is that if social media is going to be adopted for the single purpose of information dissemination, it's going to become just one more channel to push out information.

The beauty of social media, however, is that there's a lot of information flowing between people because it's a decentralized network. It can be a way of getting situational awareness and for people to enter into the conversation so that it's no longer unidirectional information gathering or data pushing.

As people use social media and informal networks to bring together new resources, I believe this can help create more resilient communities that can better withstand and recover from disasters.