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San Francisco Partners with Nextdoor for Emergency Alerts

The city first used the platform during a five-alarm fire at a construction site in March.

In March, San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood endured a five-alarm fire that, just before 5 p.m., engulfed a six-story, 80-foot-tall building that was under construction, sending black smoke thousands of feet into the air and eventually burning the building to the ground.

During the blaze, San Francisco officials used its latest emergency tech project to notify residents of the situation and give updates. 

Using Nextdoor — a Facebook-style social networking site for neighbors to communicate on topics such as crime, safety, services, lost pets, nearby resources and emergency plans —  the project offers a real-time delivery system for city alerts, crowdsourced reports and crisis maps that connect residents to resources. Announced on April 17 to commemorate the city’s devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, the collaboration links Nextdoor and the city’s SF72, San Francisco’s public engagement and emergency preparedness hub for the Department of Emergency Management (DEM).

The offerings come at zero cost to the city, and SF72 — “72” referring to the 72 hours following an emergency incident — intends to leverage Nextdoor’s pervasive resident network that extends throughout the city.

"We can actually share information within all of the neighborhoods within San Francisco, or we can geographically target neighborhoods if something is happening,” said Kristin Hogan, DEM’s program manager.

During the five-alarm fire, AlertSF, a text-based notification system, sent multiple messages through Nextdoor, and its other communication routes, to assist nearby residents. The platform also allowed the Mission Bay neighborhood to communicate with each other to coordinate an evacuation that occurred from the east side of Fourth Street between Mission Rock and China Basin streets, according a CBS report.

“When we send those types of alerts out, it's usually a higher level of an emergency that's taking place," said Francis Zamora, San Francisco’s public information officer. "So the Nextdoor team has dedicated staff within their own company to monitor AlertSF when an alert is released." 

As an additional tool for the city, Hogan said the partnership lays out yet another avenue to direct alerts and notifications. Additionally, it puts the critical communication in existing networks where dialogue is already happening — instead of waiting for residents to seek the information.

"It's important for us to work smarter and not harder in identifying these existing networks we can plug into as opposed to us trying to develop them from scratch,” Hogan said.

In contrast to more traditional social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which DEM also uses, Hogan said the advantage lies in the personalization and specificity of Nextdoor. For users to participate on the private platform, they must verify their home address through their phone number, the mail via a post card password or through a free debit or credit card reference.

“We're inserting ourselves into the conversations by going to where the conversations are taking place,” she said.

While the partnership is a first for San Francisco, it’s also a first for Nextdoor in California. Kelsey Grady, the company’s head of communications, said it is the first standalone partnership the San Francisco-based company has made with a municipal department of emergency management across the U.S., notwithstanding its more than 32,000 neighborhoods. Joint efforts have been made with about 165 local government entities nationwide, police departments representing the majority. It’s also the first department collaboration in San Francisco.

"Our hope is to eventually have a partnership with every city, with every police department, with every office of emergency management, but it's stepping stones with bringing people onto the platform and then getting the product right,” Grady said of Nextdoor’s long-term strategy for government partnership.

Reflecting on the company’s private-public partnerships, Grady said the developments were mutually beneficial additions, but not foreseen when the company first began. Originally, the platform was meant to be a neighbor-to-neighbor only channel of communication and interaction. However, with government departments having such critical information about neighborhood safety and security, the partnerships formed organically.

"I think it's kind of interesting how this partnership is igniting the conversation around using technology," Grady said, "and how you can use technology to get prepared when disaster strikes."

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.