How social media is shaping modern emergency management

By: Irmak Renda-Tanali

University of Maryland University College, Information and Technology Systems Department, 3501 University Boulevard East, Adelphi, Maryland, 20783 U.S.A.

Abstract

This paper reviews the current trends in social media use and its impacts on modern emergency management practices. There are many examples where citizen participation in social media facilitated emergency management actions such as increased warning, situational awareness, evacuation, and resource mobilization among the public and response organizations. Research is only beginning to investigate and make sense out of the patterns and trends in public usage of media during crises and emergencies. There are many steps to be taken and barriers to be broken by emergency management organizations in order to integrate social media into their everyday practices.

Introduction

As we entered the second decade of the 21st century we have been witnessing the vast infiltration of social media into our daily lives. Social networking took a new meaning with the use of virtual platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and MySpace, among many others. Over the past several years, and more recently in an increasing rate, people all across the world have been engaging in social interactions with no time or location constraints via online social networking sites. Friends, family members, or colleagues are only a few clicks away regardless of whether they might be thousands of miles away physically.

Indeed, social media has revolutionized the world in many fronts including citizen awakening against authoritarian regimes across the world; informing and mobilizing the masses against regime changes. The Arab Spring of 2011 is an example where citizens of several Arab countries including Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria created and shared news stories that would not otherwise be covered by broadcast media which is usually owned and/or controlled by their governments (Howard, 2012). In Iran for example, the opposition movement is conducted and facilitated through social media (Howard, 2012). In Russia and in China, social activist groups are flourishing through digital activism and slowly uprising against the authoritarian actions imposed upon citizens by their central governments (Howard, 2012). Across the world, in many countries social media is being used as a medium for two-way communication among the public and between the public and the state. In many ways this is liberation for the public as well as a facilitator for democratic governance and citizens’ right to know.

What is fascinating about social media is its low cost and ease of access. With the technological advances and the economies of scale, internet access is widespread and many social networking sites have free access requiring only basic personal information and password protection. Not only desktop or laptop computers but the mobile phones support the usage of social media applications. The portable nature of the technology makes the access much faster and convenient.

According to its own website, as of June 2012, the total number of active Facebook users are 955 million (Facebook, 2012); nearly three times as many as the population of the United States (U.S.) and as many as the combined populations of the 4 of the 6 most populous countries which are U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, and Pakistan (excluding China and India). Again according to the same source, approximately 81% of monthly active users are outside the U.S. and Canada (Facebook, 2012). An average user has about 130 friends (Facebook, 2012). The second most popular social networking site in terms of registered users appears to be Twitter. The number of registered Twitter users are reportedly around 106 million as of March 2012, with an average amount of tweets per day around 55 million, and 8,900 tweets coming every second (Twitaholic, Huffington Post, 2012). The number of video viewings on YouTube everyday is reportedly around 4 billion, as of March 2012  (YouTube, 2012). The number of languages YouTube is broadcast in across the world is 54, and every minute a total of 60 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube  (YouTube, 2012). There are many other social networking sites with growing numbers of usage around the world.

Social media is heavily influencing the way emergency management and disaster response is conducted. Today, emergency managers are beginning to understand the importance of social media and how they can utilize it to better communicate with citizens in order to better prevent casualties and property loss. This paper analyzes the recent trends of the social media use and its impacts on modern emergency management practices.

Social Media and Crisis Communication

Wide scale emergencies and disasters require communication with the public for the purposes of informing them of the immediate or anticipated dangers of the situation, the likely causes, and the actions to be taken. Citizens have to adapt their behavior to keep themselves and their property out of harm’s way. Since local response agencies are usually the first responders who arrive at the scene, they hold the critical first-hand information regarding the emergency situation along with those citizens who are directly impacted. Traditionally, or rather until the past several years, the rest of the public used to get their information about a disaster situation only through broadcast media such as television, radio, or newspapers. This was and is problematic, since many of the disaster events evolve quickly by transforming into either better or worse or complex situations where the time lag between the media reports and the delivery would make the news report obsolete and irrelevant. With the advances of information technology, the form of social interaction among citizens have changed and evolved significantly. Instead of physically gathering, people can now gather virtually from any location exchanging knowledge regarding a potential disaster in such a way that survival rates or evacuation efficiency could be improved.

In today’s modern society, there are many people who wake up and get their first sip of coffee or tea while getting their first news from online news sources including social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook. A study conducted by the American Red Cross revealed the fact that about 63% of the population representing the U.S. population turned to online news to get information about an emergency such as a power outage, severe weather, flash flood, hurricane, earthquake and tornado (American Red Cross, 2011). This does not mean people disregard the traditional media outlets such as TV news and local radio stations in informing themselves about emergencies, since 90% of the general population still reportedly turn to TVs and 73% to local radio according to the same study (note that the data are not mutually exclusive). This implies that people augment what they learn from the broadcast media with social media. Increasingly, citizens no longer rely solely on broadcast media since the media can, more often than not, use repeated and striking imagery to sensationalize the news out of interest for high viewer ratings. This usually comes at the expense of provision of more relevant risk communication (Latonero & Shklovski, 2011).

As indicated by  Latonero & Shklovski recently, the current research on public response to disasters and emergencies highlight the importance of better organizing and deploying crisis and risk communication through more-up-to-date methods and more interactively (See for example Hughes & Palen, 2012; Crowe, 2010;  Hui, Tyshchuk, Wallace, Magdon-Ismail, & Goldberg, 2012;  Palen, 2008;  and Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008;  Jaeger, et al., 2007).

There are many recent examples where social media has been interactively and effectively utilized (1) in order to help emergency response agencies; and (2) where citizen groups benefited by the use of social media during large scale emergencies in the form of either creating situational awareness or altering behavior or mobilizing resources. I illustrate some of the examples indicated in the literature:

2007 Southern California Wildfires

Beginning on October 20, 2007, wildfires starting in Malibu, California spread across Santa Barbara County to San Diego County’s border with Mexico. The fires cumulatively destroyed close to 1,500 homes, burned over 500,000 acres of land and resulted in massive evacuations (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008). Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski conducted a survey on the affected community members immediately after the disaster. Their survey results indicated that 76% of the respondents sought information through information portals and websites; whereas 38% through alternative news sources and individual blogs; 15% through discussions on various web forums; and 10% through photo sharing websites such as Flickr or Picasa. More than 36% of the survey respondents reported posting inofrmation or participating in online discussion groups; some 4% broadcast via Twitter; and another 9% posted about the disaster on personal blogs. Note that the usership of social networking sites has increased significantly in five years from 2007 to 2012, thus these figures would be much higher in the case of similar emergencies today.

Sutton et al.’s research also documented some of the most important reasons why people turned to social media which include: broadcast media bias on celebrity homes—pretty much ignoring the rural areas; inaccurate information by the broadcast media in terms of location and severity; the slow response from the government; the official government websites not having the relevant information or having been crashed. People not only used social media to get information or inform others but to relieve stress and support each other during times of crisis. This backchannel of activity described by the researchers also led to the creation of online communities that served the purpose of community convergence areas, or information sources that the news networks could freely rely on (e.g. signinsandiego.com; ramonarelief.com etc.) The site operators collaborated with local officials and firefighters to provide up-to-date information as quickly as possible. In the case of 2007 Southern California fires, both alternative and mainstream organizations capitalized on social media to help alleviate the crisis (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008;  Palen, 2008).

Red River Floods, North Dakota, 2009

In 2009, the City of Fargo, North Dakota was experiencing severe flooding from the Red River during the middle of the winter and there was a shortage of volunteers. At the suggestion of one local person who was already volunteering, the community implemented a Facebook group  (Crowe, 2010). In a short period of time, they were able to generate interest to gather a volunteer group that consisted about 5% of their local population. This mobilizing effort helped improve the local response capabilities significantly (Crowe, 2010).

BP Oil Spill, 2010

Resulting from an explosion on an oil drilling platform owned and operated by British Petroleum (BP),  about  4.1 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, making it the biggest unintentional offshore oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry  (The Telegraph, 2010). There were technical hurdles combined with policy issues that significantly delayed the stopping of the spill. The response efforts benefitted from crowdsourcing in this major disaster according to Adam Crowe (2010) who indicated that BP received more than 20,000 suggestions from all around the world that were categorized into “not possible”, “already planned” or “feasible”. As a result, BP identified nearly 100 “feasible” options that were not thought of before, to stop the oil spill (Crowe, 2010).

Haiti Earthquake, 2010

Another example of the engagement of social media in disaster response efforts concerns the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. Around 640 volunteers around the world used simple web browser tools to scan old atlases and maps to build an online streetmap of Haiti in around two weeks, a project that otherwise would have taken almost a year (Lacey-Hall, 2011). They created the map using OpenStreetMap, a geospatial wiki and helped humanitarian agencies’ response operations including UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)  (Lacey-Hall, 2011).  Also a free crowdsourcing site called Ushahidi was utilized by the public during the response efforts. Ushahidi provided web-based or mobile connectivity to collect geospatial or text-based information from ‘the crowd’  (Ushahidi). The data gathered from the public was synthesized into web-based maps about real time information about health conditions, infrastructure damage and localized emergencies (Crowe, 2010). It would be impossible for local or governmental response agencies to collect and  provide the kind of data in real time to the public  (Crowe, 2010).

2011 South East Queensland, Australia floods

Facebook and Twitter played an important role in crisis communication at the height of the 2011 South East Queensland floods crisis. According to Bruns, Burgess, Crawford, & Shaw (2012), at the height of the crisis, Twitter became a source for mainstream media as well as the response agencies. More than 35,000 tweets containing the #qldfloods hashtag were sent between 10-16 January, and more than 15,500 Twitter users participated in #qldfloods (Bruns et al., 2012).  About 50 to 60% of #qldfloods messages were retweets (meaning passing along existing messages, and thereby making them more visible) whereas 30 to 40% of the messages contained links to further information on the internet. Users close to the site of disaster shared their firsthand experiences via tweets and by including photographs. About one in five shared links included photos from the disaster site. The Queensland Police Service Media Unit account (@QPSMedia) was key to the dissemination of timely and relevant information to the public including situational information and advice. @QPSMedia played a crucial role in helping affected locals including providing volunteering information. Since then @QPSMedia remains a leading account for crisis communication in Queensland. The unit is reportedly working to build further dedicated links to the Twitter accounts of key media agencies and civic authorities in order to develop a more comprehensive social media crisis communication in Queensland (Bruns et al., 2012).

There are many other examples where social media had some form of impact in terms of creating situational awareness, altering community or individual behavior, or mobilizing resources for better response. Additionally, researchers began studying the mechanics of social media use through microblogging (e.g. Twitter), geocoding, or other human-centered sensing technologies and how they are integrated into crisis and emergency management practices (For practical examples see for example  Vieweg, Hughes, Starbird, & Palen, 2010;  Heverin & Zach, 2010;  Hui, Tyshchuk, Wallace, Magdon-Ismail, & Goldberg, 2012; Pohl, Bouchachia, & Hellwagner, 2012;  Gonzalez, Granmo, Munkvold, Li, & Dugdale, 2012;  Tyshchuk, Hui, Grabowski, & Wallace, 2012;  and Song & Yan, 2012).

Summary and Conclusion

Although the modern global society has adopted social media as its integral part, its utility during crises and emergencies are not fully studied or understood yet. There is no clear understanding of how social media can be effectively utilized to assist the public in its emergency management decisions, nor is there an agreed-upon or a uniform approach to integrating social media into formal emergency management practices (Tyshchuk, et al., 2012).

In recent studies, researchers examined the micro blogging patterns during and after crisis situations using statistical analysis tools and attempted to identify common patterns. Most studies are categorical in nature such as the frequency of tweets, and retweets in relation to how a crisis or emergency unfolds; content classification such as information, opinion, emotion, action, technology (Heverin et al., 2010) or warning response type tweets (e.g. receiving the warning, understanding the contents of the warning message, trusting the credibility of the warning, personalizing the warning, seeking and obtaining the confirmation, and taking action) (Tyshcuk et al., 2012), or outlining a construct about main themes of a crisis (Vieweg et al., 2010; Pohl, Bouchachia, & Hellwagner, 2012;  Song & Yan, 2012; Song & Yan, 2012).

The ad hoc nature of social media usage can cause information overload for people who are already under a great deal of stress due to an emergency situation (Pohl et al. 2012). Understanding and interpreting data by looking at certain diffusion patterns and key content in the absence of systematic analysis tools creates a challenge for public response agencies. There is a need for further and better structured engagement among the public to integrate citizen gathering, reporting and dissemination of information through smart phones and computers. Technology availability and infrastructure seem to be the least of the problems. For example, after an earthquake, phone lines and cell systems get totally jammed with people trying to find out whether people are okay.  A simple “I’m ok ” tweet  is much more efficient in terms of bandwidth such that social media could really be the key mode of communication of choice for people in disaster zones to report their status to their families and friends.  Phone calls take longer and consume more resources that should be available for more critical communications.

In official emergency response practices, the main challenges are centered on organizational backing and resource availability for effective adoption and integration into the policies. Information verification and dissemination, managing rumor-mongering and how to codify management of these issues into emergency management policies and procedures is still an unsolved issue. There are a few examples of social media “evangelists” among public officials who have already integrated social media monitoring and usage into their response practices such as the public information officer of the Los Angeles Fire Department (see Latonero & Scholvski, 2011). However, there is no widespread adoption of such practices in the rest of the U.S. or other modern nations. Emergency management organizations are now faced with the challenge of creating new positions or roles to meet the need to monitor and engage in social media through coordinated and coherent approaches that can be seamlessly integrated into response practices.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Claire Rubin and Dr. Christopher Hekimian for their review and comments on the initial version of this article.

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