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Social Network for Emergencies to Launch in San Francisco

The site aims to connect citizens willing to offer resources and services after a disaster occurs.

Disasters are scary — there’s no question about it. But as much as they cause fear, they also bring people together, connecting communities in ways that few other incidents can. Focusing on those connections, rather than the catastrophe, is the theory behind the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management’s (SFDEM) new project, created to enhance the city’s disaster preparedness.

The site, set to launch this fall, aims to connect citizens willing to offer resources and services — from food, water and an extra generator to mechanical services and a place to stay — 72 hours after a disaster occurs.

“We wanted to create a message of preparedness that focused on creating communities that made people the star of the show rather than the catastrophe,” said Francis Zamora, public information officer for SFDEM.

The site will feature four categories: a place for people to connect and share resources and services; instructions on how to prepare for a disaster, including videos on putting together a kit and making potable water, plus testimonials from those who have survived disasters; a “make” section for users to invent their own ways to help; and an emergency mode, which will switch on when disaster strikes and share live information with the public, plus check for missing persons.

Created in collaboration with design firm IDEO, the goal is to make the site approachable and uncomplicated to help people shift from thinking that they should be doing more to prepare to actually taking action.

“We want to get people into the sharing mode ahead of time,” Zamora said.

SFDEM research shows that communities with natural social networks are more resilient than others, as citizen-to-citizen resource sharing proved necessary during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Encouraging communities to connect through a social network is part of the department’s larger plan to enhance San Francisco’s preparedness, said Zamora.

For those who aren’t connected online, the department is planning to have leaders from churches and other city organizations log-on to the site and relay the updated information to their social networks in person.

SFDEM is also looking into having people sign-in through Facebook or Google, limiting the amount of log-on information needed. will be completely open source, so any city around the country could potentially make the concept its own. There’s been regional interest and New York has already contacted the department to learn more about it, Zamora said.

The department recently completed a beta test for an app that allowed people to connect with others in the same neighborhood for sharing resources. But nothing is set in stone.

“We want it to be device and mobile friendly, but there may not be an app; it might just be a website,” Zamora said. SF72 could evolve after the launch, he said, if, for example, a coder has a people finder that works really well.

Zamora said the department is also exploring trusted networks for sharing resources to address privacy concerns about publicly announcing that someone owns a generator.

The first phase of work, which was grant funded and included research, design of mock ups and brand and focus groups, cost $399,000. The second phase, which will begin this month, cost $850,000 to complete the website, along with a ShareSF app prototype, according to Zamora.

The department is currently looking for partnerships with foundations and the private sector to complete the rest of the project.

Learn more about the reasoning behind creating SF72 in the following video courtesy of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. This story was originally published by Emergency Management magazine.

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.