Following the publication of a report last year about lessons learned from social media’s use during Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a new document on July 1 to address how social platforms can and are being used for situational awareness.

Developed by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Virtual Social Media Working Group, the report “addresses various challenges associated with the use of social media for situational awareness, the integration of social media within the operational environment, and identifies areas requiring further consideration, research and development,” according to FirstResponder.gov.

Called Using Social Media for Enhanced Situational Awareness and Decision Support (PDF), the report says that while situational awareness is not a new concept for emergency managers, it is a focus point for response and recovery efforts — and social media provides additional channels through which information can be shared and requested. “If integrated with traditional data, social media can help emergency responders achieve and maintain situational awareness in real time. This will assist with decision-making, planning and resource allocation,” says the report.

While numerous emergency managers and agencies have embraced social media, identifying best practices and lessons learned helps advance the use of the platforms and how information is both collected and disseminated. Real-world examples in the document include Boston’s use of Twitter following the bombing at the 2013 marathon. The Boston Police Department tweets in effect became the official source of information for everyone, including the media, especially after numerous reports by the press turned out to be false, Emergency Management reported. “We realized that we were fortunate that we already had the infrastructure set up, so we already had a Twitter account, a blog and a Facebook page,” said Cheryl Fiandaca, who at the time was the bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department. “If we hadn’t had that in place and hadn’t been using it in a substantial way, I think we would have been at a terrible loss during that time.”

The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency in Washington is another example that’s highlighted for its use of social media monitoring on an ongoing basis and during emergencies. The agency uses the free tool TweetDeck to monitor Twitter lists, which are categorized into channels including national news media, local news media, public safety, community members and professional contacts. Emergency Manager Cheryl Bledsoe and her staff members maintain awareness of the tweets within each group.

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,” Bledsoe said last year.

As increasingly more agencies and organizations seek to add social media monitoring into their operations, the report outlines seven key factors relating to information and data requirements to effectively use the platforms:

  • degree of detail and verification needed;
  • method of aggregation and filtering;
  • challenges associated with volume and access to information;
  • applicable search parameters;
  • data management considerations such as data format, update frequency, storage and removal of personally identifiable information;
  • restrictions and challenges associated with adoption of third-party technologies with respect to legacy technology platforms; and
  • security and privacy implications.

The report concludes with a series of questions related to developing best practices to encourage information sharing (e.g., Can the definition of personally identifiable social media information be standardized across government agencies?) and issues that require further consideration. But Emergency Management blogger Gerald Baron doesn’t want the list of questions to discourage emergency managers and agencies from using social media platforms: “You want to get started? Just get on social media and start discovering for yourself what amazing things can be found.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management.

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.