My Impressions of Social Media for Emergency Management

I’ve learned a lot working on social media analysis over the last few years.  What I’ve seen:

  • Traditional journalists have adjusted a lot in the last couple years. Many news organizations and even individual journalists have moved to Twitter to push stories and show developing details in their stories before they post final reports. More savvy types are retweeting others’ related info, are establishing rapport with other journalists on Twitter, and most importantly, they are using Facebook as a way to gather users comments and observations. I’ve seen some great threads where people share road closures, trapped cars, etc. for bad town flooding, as an example. Two years ago, a lot of journalists were Twitter-stupid. SO much different now.  They are almost one and the same.  Almost.
  • The key problem right now is not having the right reporting app, or aggregating info.  We’re pretty good at that, and we adjust fluidly per incident. Haiti’s Ushahidi maps and retweets and reliefweb were damn solid.  No, the main problem is institutional.  News organizations are proprietary.  Governments withhold negative information. Agencies are hamstrung by risk-averse lawyers and braindead public relations departments that want to control every single message. The lawyers work FOR us, remember?  Not against innovation.  The worst is that people are stubborn.  I have had journalist people tell me how dumb they think Twitter is, and how useless social media is in the face of fact-checking. Well, yes, we need that too. But how do you go about finding which intel and information to go verify?  So, let your Twitter-smart people do the work.  They love it anyway.  Don’t threaten them and tell them what they can and can’t tweet.  They are the online ambassadors.
  • Firefighters are the best at emergency management in social media.  Just a quick look at the #nmfire hashtag.
    OMG!! RT @: Latest picture looking at Los Alamos Medical Center Not sure who credit goes to for pic. #nmfire http://yfrog.com/kh1yuej
    @trip_44
    trip jennings

    The initial coverage of the Los Alamos Las Conchas fire was quick to post thermal imagery, photos, geocoords, incident management team activation, coordination between different fire teams.  I think firefighting is the best for a lot of the social media-specific tools because it involves coordinated effort for a single event over a large area, where containment is the goal.  The fires often cross county- and state- lines, as well.  Contrast this with, say, the Missouri/Mississippi River floodings, which have been managed mostly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controlling dam output.  It’s not widespread coordination as reaction to USACE decisions, and requesting federal aid to begin reconstruction.  Hashtags have to deal with local areas and not regions, since the damage is random and widespread:

    Is there a reason why news reports on flooding in #Minot ND never mention Minuteman missile base there? 91st Space Wing http://t.co/qZ1beuC
    @DirigoBlue
    Gerald Weinand
  • Some events are not conducive to social media.  Deepwater Horizon started out as something entirely contained to the wreckage of the platform.  Very hard to get good info on it.  But then the situation shifted.  While the activity at the broken well was controlled by BP and NOAA resources, the blogs and forums at the Times-Picayune and al.com became excellent resources for hearing what local store owners, shore residents, and others were saying about how oil slick and reduced tourism were affecting them.  The story tracked on social media occurred among the residents nearby, not out in the water’s depths.
  • There is a new tribe of social media emergency managers being formed.  There are also a lot of hangers-on.  But having spent slow nights and weekends and holidays watching who posts and who cares, it’s become obvious to me which people are in the digital trenches, tracking events, and more importantly, the game-changing events, and not the useless fluff.  Another trend I’ve noticed is the single-serving types: I follow tons of people who are one-trick ponies with Afghanistan or Iraq obsessions, purporting to be national security experts but having no clue about CBP (Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Miguel Aleman, international bridges, etc.), JTTF, ICE, Sheriff Joe, Guatemalan Zeta movement, grow farms in the northwest run by Mexicans, Coast Guard activity on the Mississippi, liquid natural gas shipments, etc.  There’s a very, very small subset of people who actually get national/homeland security in a broad enough context.  The rest are following what’s cool, and right now, it’s “cool” to be counter-terror.  There’s always the tension between on-the-ground folks and the theoretical office-based folks.
  • Evan Kohlmann posts teasers from jihadi forums without citation, presumably to preserve his utility as a source of non-jihadi reporting?  I always wanted a Twitter account that retweets everything of his with [citation needed] attached.
  • Haiti blew me away.  The U.S. Air Force running ops out of the airport, the Navy trying to repair the docks to start bringing in relief via sea.  The local radio DJ @carelpedre who used his Twitter account to broadcast locations of reports of people trapped under the rubble, the reliefweb reports of makeshift camps and cholera outbreaks and riots.  It was an amazing blend of media from different sources, all of whom were needed, from Haitians on the street to the local DJ who had throughput and a broadcast antenna to the US military to international relief organizations to field journalists.
  • A lot of open source and intel analysts still don’t trust social media.  They want some big, verified name to hand them the truth, when really their job is to catch wind of what is happening.  Are there some people saying there’s something going on in this small town?  Point the spotlight there and see.  Maybe it was nothing.  But you just need some hints, then you rely on your analytical skills to figure out the truth.  A good intel analyst doesn’t just wait on Associated Press to do his work for him.
  • I would not want to have to hire someone who had no Twitter and Facebook accounts.  I almost feel that way about gmail.  How can you trust them to be worth their salt at social media if they care about protecting their online history?
  • Ushahidi is super easy to install and setup.  But what emergency response needs is dedicated curators, and more automatic uploading of content from on-the-ground folks, so that they don’t have to stop and manually do it.  I predict GoPro cameras + high-speed wireless + real-time uploading will be key for this.  Or what about a tech to translate voice/radio to digital clips, piggy-backing off a trusted first-responder’s Twitter brand/account?
  • Curators, curators, curators.  The people who sift through and vet stuff.  Like @acarvin.
  • New York City really doesn’t give a fuck.  I think they deal with so many suspicious packages and incidents that it’s tough to get a rise out of them.  Compare that with other cities and towns where people see a brown paper bag in the street and FREAK OUT.
  • Databases are still a mystery to government and news organizations.  Half the tasks done could be automated and be used to generate sophisticated analyses of emerging threats or patterns.  But hey, we’ll just craft our impressions in an Outlook draft for now.
  • The Mexico drug violence, which we only recently admitted was 1) a problem and 2) was spurred on using our own weapons, has infiltrated and intimidated journalists in Mexico so much that it has become the first social media-mediated battle zone.  Local residents use the #MexicoRojo hashtag to discuss what’s happening, such as hearing a shootout down the street.  The anonymous drug cartel reporting blogs regularly have thousands of comments per post, with people offering speculation about what the cartels are up to, and (I suspect) cartel members and sicarios taunting each other.  The bodies hung off highway bridges along with narcomantas (signs w/ messages to opponents), the brutal dismemberments and burning and acid baths of bodies are meant for the papers and for Twitter, with accompanying videos of torture and execution being posted on YouTube and on Mexican blogs.  It is a war without ideology, one of money and power and humiliating opponents for control of drug routes and for machismo.
  • LulzSec and Anonymous and rivals using Twitter to communicate directly was interesting.  A very public display of interaction.  Pastebin as a quick and dirty and metadata free way to post info was also interesting — third-party site used for a bit of old school pure text.  Going back to IRC, to the shell, to the days of just using text and Linux without all the fancy stuff we have now.  My general opinion of the cyber stuff is that the US government must adapt, and not try to change the internet to stop those types of people.  The leaks that have been put out have not been bad for the US’s purported values of openness, democracy, peace, and human rights.  A lot of the leaks show a bureaucracy that’s doing as it should.  What we need to get rid of are the bureaucrats who grew up in the world of overclassification, elitism, and centralized access to information.  I see Anonymous as a foil, and one the US could take advantage of as promoting its core principles…if the US only had the humility to admit that the internet is, and should be, dealt with only at the edges.

Bottom line.  If you really want to improve social media emergency response, the best thing to do in the short-term is to promote the leaders.  It’s the Ashoka model of promoting the gamechangers and the changemakers themselves, the individuals who seem to just be really good at it.  Then give them all the resources they need.  Give them a team they will train.  Those people will take that social DNA with them, and it will expand from there.  You can’t force people to have passion for this stuff, but you can reward those who do have it.