Rather than constantly scouring the Web for news and updates during emergencies, Catawba County, N.C., is trying to track that data and other valuable information on Twitter and Facebook. County programmer analyst Lee Yount experimented with the practice during the recent Hurricane Earl that buffeted North Carolina’s coast.

“People just started using the hash tag [the pound sign followed by a searchable phrase] ‘#Earl’ when they would talk about the hurricane. We were able to follow what people were saying about it, whether it be the Red Cross, FEMA, hurricane chasers — or people actually in the path of the storm. We were able to get a feel for what was going on in that area or what emergency personnel were saying about it,” explained Yount.

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He preferred monitoring Twitter using a free Web download from Hootsuite Media.

“It was more or less a centralized place we could gather this information rather than having to go to several different websites,” Yount said.

He thinks social media has a potential to reduce strain that 911 centers usually endure from people reporting incidents during emergencies. The city plans to designate an employee for monitoring social networks during the next occurrence requiring the county’s emergency operations center. Yount is set to fill that role and is training another employee for doing the job as well.

Chatter is also happening in Catawba County about possibly collaborating on this effort with other local governments in the North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Association. Yount said he wasn’t sure how multiple governments would collaborate.

“It’s kind of in the brainstorming stage right now,” Yount said. “We’re not really sure where it’s going to lead.”

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor