Use of social media in disasters

When it comes to the use of social media in disasters then this can be split up into  3 purposes:

  • Advocacy and Fundraising – utilizing social media to interact more closely with people donating and influencing public opinion
  • Information Sharing with affected communities – reaching out during disasters to the affected community with information about services, threats, etc.
  • Information Management – utilizing the social media platforms to collect, process, analyze and disseminate information required for organizations to do their work

Advocacy and Fundraising

We all know the importance of being able to tell a story that moves people. Twenty years ago we hardly heard about disasters striking on the news and we needed concerts which showed us images of starving children to reach for our wallets in masses. With the proliferation of traditional media we now get disasters shown live in our living rooms. As an NGO working in the affected area, it takes a lot of effort to build and maintain a relationship with key media people to ensure they visit you in the field and show your good work.

Social media is breaking down this model. Instead of having to rely on traditional media, NGOs can now tell the story directly, not only to their mailing lists, but also to the internet community at wide. Many NGOs are now equipping their field workers with small digital video cameras (Flip) and push them towards taking videos of the work being done. Few years back if you mentioned blogs or YouTube to directors of international programs for major NGOs like the Red Cross then they would be terrified at the thought of their people writing about the work online. Now they encourage it. This change in behavior has been just in the last 18 months or so. Field workers are now taught how to use social media to generate awareness of the work they are doing. Through social network like FaceBook and Twitter the NGO community can now expand their donor base by encouraging their followers to spread information about the good work they are doing.

In the aftermath of Haiti, American Red Cross used this coupled with text messages as a fundraising vehicle. Never in the history of fundraising has so much money been generated so fast. They got $5million in the first 48 hours and within 2 weeks they had $32 million and their final figure was $40 million dollars just through this channel.

Information Sharing with Affected Communities

This is where Craig Fugate, director of FEMA is seeing as a big opportunity. As more and more citizens live inside social networks such as FaceBook and Twitter, emergency management organizations are being encouraged to utilize these to share information about the threat approaching (hurricane, flood, etc.), where to evacuate to and then as a mechanism for communicating with the affected citizens on where to go for services, etc. There have been some some great write ups by Kim Stephens on the iDisaster 2.0 blog about the recent floods in Australia. Here are two links:

We have also seen a rise of digital volunteer groups like HumanityRoad that do an excellent job of utilizing social media to reach out to those affected via social media and providing them accurate information from the response community.

Information Management

This is an area I have been most deeply involved in. The idea behind this scenario is that we utilize social media as a tool for collecting, processing and analyzing information about the disaster.

I fully support the idea of utilizing social media to leverage the power of the crowd (the internet community) to help you perform very complex or mundane data processing and analysis tasks. I have previously written a blog post about this use. The examples of leveraging the Haitian Diaspora to translate and geo-reference information was in my mind ground-breaking use in this space.

But where I tend to disagree with many of my colleagues is around the area of data collection through social media. Many of them have seen this as an holy grail to finally getting good situational overview of what is happening during a disaster. But more on that in the next blog post.

Published February 23rd 2011 at DisasterExpert