#YYCFlood – The role of social media during the 2013 Calgary flood

By: Dr. Kate Kaminsky, Defence Scientist at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Centre for Security Science (CSS), Twitter: @katekaminska1

Background

In late June 2013, Alberta experienced heavy rainfall which led to catastrophic flooding in the City of Calgary and the surrounding area. On June 20, the City of Calgary declared a State of Local Emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order that affected 75,000 people living in the vicinity of the of the Bow and Elbow rivers and included a large area in Calgary’s downtown core. [1] Overnight from June 20 to the 21, the flood waters spilled over to Calgary’s central business district, flooded thousands of homes and commercial buildings, inundated the Calgary Zoo, threatening the lives of the animals, and reportedly filled the city’s largest arena, Scotiabank Saddledome, up to the first ten rows. [2][3][4]

Media outlets, relief organizations, City services, politicians but most of all Calgary’s citizens used social media extensively during the response to and recovery from the floods.  The Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), Calgary Police, a number of City officials, chief among those the Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, deliberately included social media in their regular public communications. [1][5][6]

People

It has been generally recognized that social media communication between City officials and the public during the flood was very effective, with success being attributed in large part to maintaining a constant and consistent flow of information. Calgary’s Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who is a well-known avid user of social media, played a significant role in setting the tone for an effective flow of information by continuously engaging with citizens via Twitter and participating in daily media briefings. He once explained his motivation as follows: “My philosophy is that everything we know should also be known by citizens as soon as safely possible. I am an advocate of sharing accurate information quickly, especially in an emergency, and City communications worked well to do exactly that.” [7] That said, social emdia use by the crisis communications team of the City of Calgary was primarily focused on pushing out information and leading the conversation, with less emphasis on monitoring and public engagement.

The Canadian Red Cross (CRC) used social media for fundraising, information sharing, reputation management, and responding to questions from people affected by the floods. Given the volume of social media traffic, the national office of the CRC relied on their own volunteers as well as organizations like CanVOST and the American Red Cross to help monitor and filter social media traffic related to the floods, address questions from the public, and decide how to respond to calls for help. They also engaged celebrity tweeters, including Canadian singer Bif Naked, to amplify messages. [8]

Finally, the citizens of Calgary embraced social media and used a variety of platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to share information, organize community groups and offer support and resources if they had a room to spare or food to share. [9] Once the flood-waters receded and the full scale of the damage was revealed, Calgarians used social media to mobilize clean-up efforts. Notably, a local group of tech-savvy citizens launched a Facebook group that, within a day, acquired over 2,100 members indicating willingness to help. Shortly thereafter, that same group of citizens went on to launch a volunteer registration site[1]  as well as a Twitter profile[2] , which ultimately led to the mobilization of over 15,000 volunteers. [10]

Governance

The social media unit within the Calgary Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) consisted of one dedicated staff member working around the clock during the crisis with additional support as necessary. The unit was part of the crisis communications team and as such social media was used primarily to manage public affairs and provide information to citizens rather than for operational purposes. Operational staff coordinating the response on the ground had limited time to monitor or engage in social media, however there was some exchange of information that benefited incident management. [5][6]

During the floods, the Municipal Emergency Plan was activated, and the reporting chain was re-configured such that messaging didn’t have to be approved centrally by city officials and instead approval was led by the EOC, which made the information flow more efficient. Co-location of the crisis communication social media staff within the central EOC environment allowed for rapid verbal verification of information, such as road closures, and timely dissemination of information via the city’s official social media channels.  Furthermore, a significant amount of more general information was pre-approved for release by the EOC leadership.  [6]

Once operations moved into the recovery phase and the clean-up effort began, the city’s social media channels became inundated with people volunteering to help in the clean-up effort. City officials quickly realized that they did not have the capacity, tools or capability to manage the large volume of volunteers. CEMA officials approached the volunteer group YYC Helps, who by then had already developed a strong social media presence as well as a volunteer management platform. The City developed a volunteer waiver form and provided it to YYC Helps to assist in the management of volunteers. The official City social media channels directed all interested volunteers to YYC Helps. This partnership resulted in a well-organized and effective flood clean-up. [11]

Technology

Since the first day of the flood, Twitter became the primary social media tool used by those seeking information updates.  #YYCflood emerged as the primary hashtag, being featured an average of 32 times every minute over a 10 day period. City officials also used Twitter, with Calgary Police initially leading the way since they already had a strong pre-established social media presence. Calgary Police actually got locked out of their Twitter account at one point, when they exceeded the maximum number of allowable Tweets. It was only due to help from a member of the public that the police account got unlocked. The city’s official Twitter account followers increased by 50% (to 84,000) during the floods and the mayor’s personal Twitter account gained over 28,000 followers. [6][12][13]

City officials also used YouTube to share content of press briefings. The Crisis Communication team found this to be beneficial to strengthen the City’s reputation and to give citizens confidence in the decisions and actions that were taken to deal with the situation.  For example, CEMA produced short videos to show citizens what it was doing on the ground and how its work benefitted the recovery. The official City website[3]  was quickly overwhelmed due the huge volume of traffic to the site. A quick solution was developed which redirected people to the city’s WordPress site, where official updates were subsequently posted to the City’s blog. The blog had 1.1 million visits in the immediate aftermath of the flood. [37] Similarly, the Canadian Red Cross used a blog to share updates, photos, videos, dispatched and stories to illustrate their efforts. [14]

While free tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WordPress were used extensively, custom-developed platforms utilized in the EOC environment, including the Esri-based Emergency Management Common Operating Picture (EM-COP) and MASAS[4] proved less useful for social media monitoring. While EM-COP can accommodate Twitter data, it can only do so on an individual basis resulting in Tweets completely overwhelming the picture. As a result, commercial tools like HootSuite and TweetDeck were used instead.  In the case of MASAS, which is designed for inter-agency situational awareness information sharing within the wider EM community, EOC staff found that the process of data input was too onerous in order for it to be used effectively.  Another issue identified with the EM-COP platform was the inability to produce live mobile maps. Some EOC staff members expressed frustration at the situation, since maps that were meant to be used in the field had to be first generated via the EM-COP and then printed in a large format. The large physical maps were cumbersome to handle and quickly became outdated, given the fast evolving situation. In some instances, city officials relied on a comprehensive mobile map put out by the local branch of the car sharing service car2go[5]. Interestingly, the car2go map was populated with information obtained from the city’s own blog and social media feeds. [5]

Implementation

At the time the flood hit, City officials were in the process of developing a new crisis communications plan.  The City of Calgary did have a defined objective with respect to the use of social media, and it was to lead the conversation through establishing the City’s corporate accounts as the authoritative and trusted source of information. The City officials realized that being active and engaged on social media allows greater control of the message. In that respect, the City officials were largely successful. Their messages were frequently shared by the public and often quoted by the media. In addition, they were quickly able to invalidate a rumour on social media that a boil water advisory had been put into effect.  The EOC social media monitoring team caught the rumour and corrected the misinformation by sending out strong messages about Calgary’s water being safe for consumption. This action arguably prevented people from panicking and stockpiling water. [37]

Conclusion

Emergency management and first responder organizations around the world are trying to exploit the use of social technologies to prepare for, respond to and recover from crisis. Social media offers the opportunity to connect and cooperate with the networked public and to reach people quickly with alerts, warnings and preparedness messages. Canada’s emergency management community has not yet fully embraced social media. Analysis of the people, governance, technology, and implementation aspects of the use of social media during the 2013 Calgary flood indicates that it was a useful tool for augmenting traditional emergency capabilities. At the same time, the there is room for growth and improvement through further exploiting social media in for situational awareness, engagement of the public, stakeholder coordination and collaboration, as well as intelligence and crowd-sourcing.

References
  1. CBC News, “Alberta flooding claims at least 3 lives”, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/alberta-flooding-claims-at-least-3-lives-1.1325013, June 21, accessed January 21, 2014.
  2. CBC News, “Premier estimates Alberta flood costs to top $5B”, August 20, 2013, accessed January 21, 2014.
  3. 2013 Calgary Stampede Flood Timeline infographic, http://corporate.calgarystampede.com/, accessed January 21, 2014.
  4. The Canadian Press, “Flood-Damaged Calgary Zoo Faces Estimated Loss Of $60 Million”, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/07/02/calgary-zoo-flooding-loss-millions_n_3535697.html, July 2, 2013, accessed January 22, 2014.
  5. Jason Cameron, Business Continuity & Recovery Planner, Calgary Emergency Management Agency, City of Calgary, Interview notes from October 21, 2013.
  6. Benjamin Morgan, Supervisor, Crisis Communication, City of Calgary, Interview notes from October 21, 2013.
  7. Benjamin Morgan, “#YYCFlood 2013: Crisis Communications”, presentation at the SMEM Expert Roundtable, October 22, 2013.
  8. Peter Lozinski, Postmedia News, “How the Red Cross used social media during the Alberta floods: Lessons learned from their experience”, http://o.canada.com/technology/red-cross-social-media-alberta-floods/, October 2013, accessed January 23, 2014.
  9. Brian Singh, “The flood has revealed Calgary’s spirit of networked humanity”, The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-flood-has-revealed-calgarys-spirit-of-networked-humanity/article12762391/ , June 23 2013, accessed January 22, 2014.
  10. Brian Singh, “YYCHelps & Calgary Cleanup: The Dynamics, Building on the Asset & Developing New Opportunities”, presentation at the SMEM Expert Roundtable, October 23, 2013.
  11. Personal communication with Jason Cameron, Business Continuity & Recovery Planner, Calgary Emergency Management Agency, City of Calgary, 23 January, 2013.
  12. Marketwired, “Calgary Strong: a Marketwired Sample Social Media Report”, Summer 2013.
  13. The Huffington Post Alberta, “Social Media’s Role In Alberta Flooding Huge: Report”, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/07/11/alberta-flooding-social-media-report_n_3581620.html, November 7, 3013, accessed January 22, 2014.
  14. Canadian Red Cross, “Alberta Flood Report: June 20-July 5”, July 2013.

 

 

[1] www.yychelps.ca

[2] @yycHelps

[3] Calgary.ca

[4] Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System, https://www.masas-x.ca/

[5] https://www.car2go.com/en/calgary/