Emergency Social Data: Alabama in Need

This guest post was written by Jeffrey Biggs from Dothan, Alabama and posted on the National Red Cross Blog. I had the pleasure of working with Jeffrey on my first national deployment in September of 2008 to Houston,TX for Hurricane Ike. In the Spring of 2008 he was deployed to Southern Wisconsin to assist in public affairs for the floods. Thank you Jeffrey for sharing your knowledge and in site on this changing world of communication during disasters. – Jody Weyers, Northeast Wisconsin Regional Volunteer and communications Director

Jody Weyers and Jeffery Biggs on deployment in Houston, TX.

 You’re sitting at home and feeling a bit helpless. All you see on the television is destruction taking place right before your eyes. You flip on your computer and you see the same thing. The local radio stations have quit playing your favorite tunes. Instead, they are interrupting normal programming to bring you the latest on the devastation taking place 200 miles to the northwest. Again, you feel like you can’t do anything but watch. You have friends and family directly in the path – and you’re in pain because you can’t help. No, I’m not reliving the events of September 11, 2001. I’m reliving the events of April 27, 2011.

April 27 was the day a horrific deadly tornado ripped a jagged scar across the state of Alabama from the Mississippi line on into Georgia and up into South Carolina. And I was sitting at work, and later at home, watching the events unfold on television and online. Concerned for my family and friends in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Gadsden. Wondering aloud to my co-workers, “What can we do?”

And that’s when I started communicating – or at least attempting to. I immediately called my cousin in Birmingham to check on them. No answer. Of course not, cell phone towers were probably down. So I sat and waited for a bit. Then, my phone rang. My cousin, his wife, and their daughter were ok. My aunt and uncle – ok. My other cousins, ok. Relief was starting to creep in. But then, my cousin’s wife said one thing, “What’s going on? We know a tornado just went through, but we can’t really communicate with anyone. We don’t know what’s happening or if anything else is coming.”

And that’s when I knew I had a job to do. I could be the eyes and ears of those who were in the path of the dangerous storms. I had access to the weather in Birmingham. I could watch the news from Birmingham. I could lend a hand. And that’s what I did. I relayed information to friends and family in the Birmingham metro area from my house just outside of Dothan. And I posted it on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Spreading information – accurate information – was vital in this time of crisis.

And then, an interesting thing happened. I got a Facebook message from my good friends in Washington DC regarding the weather north of me, and one very simple question, “Are you able to help?” Of course, my answer was “YES! Let me help those in my own backyard, please.”

And that’s when a unique experiment in social media communication began. As the majority of the world was fixated on events taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in London’s Westminster Abbey, the American Red Cross was focusing its energy on helping those throughout the southeastern United States who had just been impacted by the biggest natural disaster to heat the area since Hurricanes Katrina and Ike. Because the destruction was so widespread and the infrastructure in many areas so heavily damaged, it wasn’t feasible for everyone to travel to an area affected. Thanks to the advances of technology and the explosive growth of social media, someone had to monitor what was being said. Someone had to help spread real, vital, potentially life-saving information to those around the globe – and most importantly, in the disaster zone – who were transfixed on the events in my backyard.

 I could be that person. I have high-speed Internet at my house. I have access to television stations from Montgomery to Panama City, Fla., and thanks to that same high speed Internet, I have access to television and radio from the affected areas. And then, there was the little matter that I am a “power” Facebooker and adept Twitter user. I could monitor the action, stay in communication with the Red Cross workers in the field and in Washington DC, and help guide people to the right places at the right time.

You see, the little experiment turned out to be remotely harnessing the power of social media to actively lend a hand to those needing it most in the disaster zone. And it was a tremendous success. I was able to monitor the action in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and other areas of the state and find out what was being said – and by whom. If wrong information was out there, I had the resources to correct it. If people were in need in a certain area and had not seen Red Cross assistance, I was able to help guide either the person to the Red Cross, or more importantly, the Red Cross workers to the people who needed them most.

During the course of events, we even discovered someone making false accusations and misguided directions to individuals in need. Because of the speed of social media, we (and I mean we in the term of American Red Cross disaster relief workers) were able to right a wrong. And most importantly, during the flow of events, we were able to bring a little bit of comfort to those hurting so greatly.

Yes, it was an unconventional way to bring assistance to those hurting – and let’s face it, not everyone had the luxury of sitting in their living room during such a brutal ordeal – but it worked. It was a grand experiment that proved the power of social media and its ability to be that vital link between those hurting and those who are willing and able to help. Having worked with the Red Cross in disaster zones and utilizing social media in the field, it was interesting to see how it could work remotely. And it worked. It continues to work. And the power of social media continues to work in Alabama. A group of citizens have rallied together to harness the power of social media and our state’s intense football rivalry between The University of Alabama and Auburn University by creating Toomers for Tuscaloosa on Facebook – a site that continues to harness Facebook’s power and lend a hand throughout Tide and Tigerland.

One Voice Through Social Media

We can text, twitter, post Facebook messages and use websites; so what is more important if you can’t do them all? With so many communication channels, did we stop communicating all together?  Are we over communicating? 

These are just a few of the questions Red Shoes PR, Inc. helped us navigate through. With their expertise, and guidance, we have launched NEWRedCross in several formats. They are shared resources so we speak with one voice to increase brand awareness, engage the community and increase volunteerism all while increasing the emotional connection to the American Red Cross.

Please join us on several social media sites under NEWRedCross, NEW stands for Northeast Wisconsin. If you can’t stop in to see us in person, please do join our viral applications. We look forward to connecting with you!

Wrap up: Social Media Grows Up – Red Cross Emergency Social Data Summit

Macon Phillips, Special Assistant to the President and Director of New Media at the White House, speaks about his experiences during Hurricane Katrina.

Thursday, August 12, 2010 —

Could a “tweet” help save a life? It can, and it has. Although many people know social media as the realm of mostly lighthearted tweets and status updates, a growing contingent are seeing—and using—this technology as a tool in emergencies.

The research backs it up. A recent Red Cross survey asked 1,058 adults about their use of social media sites in emergency situations. It found that if they needed help and couldn’t reach 9-1-1, one in five would try to contact responders through a digital means such as e-mail, websites or social media. If web users knew of someone else who needed help, 44 percent would ask other people in their social network to contact authorities, 35 percent would post a request for help directly on a response agency’s Facebook page and 28 percent would send a direct Twitter message to responders.

Addressing this trend, the American Red Cross recently hosted an Emergency Social Data Summit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. More than 150 people—leaders and experts in the government, social media, emergency response and the non-profit sectors—attended the full-day summit to discuss better ways to handle information that flows through the web during disasters.

Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern opened the summit with remarks, emphasizing that these issues are ones that could save lives. “I can’t think of anything more noble and exciting than that,” she said.

Empowered through Social Media
Macon Phillips, special assistant to the President and director of new media for the White House, was a volunteer during Hurricane Katrina. Working in a Baton Rouge shelter, he saw children looking for their parents, and parents looking for their children, yet matching them was difficult. Multiple organizations and systems were having trouble coordinating and sharing information.

“It left me believing in the transformative power of the web, and how it could be used in crisis situations,” Phillips said.

He also commented on the empowering nature of social media and its ability to let one individual change reality. “One person can take a photo. One person can post a message…and it changes all our understanding of a situation immediately.” People have always wanted to help—and now they have the tools.

Andrew Noyes describes how Facebook has helped the public respond during disasters.

In the five years since Hurricane Katrina, social media has exploded, and its potential for use in crises was clear after the Haiti earthquake. Patrick Meier is a director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, which is a platform that unifies data gathered from multiple sources (SMS, e-mail, web) and distributes it onto a visual map or timeline. It was used after the earthquake to map actionable information, using the volunteer efforts of thousands of people around the world.

Melissa Eliott Whitaker was heavily involved in the Haiti relief effort as a volunteer. Positioning herself as the “everyman,” Whitaker emphasized the power that regular citizens have during emergencies. Using new media allowed Whitaker and others to get people food, water and critical medical attention after the earthquake. “Every individual can make a difference by stepping up and using the tools available,” Whitaker said.

A group of panelists discussed the technology behind social data and how they are being used in crises. Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, noted Facebook’s involvement after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, as well as after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, explaining how the platform is educating the public and letting them know how they can help.

Behind the Technology
The rapid, exponential growth of social media—and the bells and whistles of new technology—are exciting. But Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reminded the audience of the ultimate goal.

“Do not focus on the technology, the tools or the gizmos,” Fugate said. “Focus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Social media can empower the public to be part of the response, not as victims to be taken care of.”

One thing is clear—the public’s use of social media in crises is growing. One of the many challenges this presents is the ability of first responders and governments to monitor this information and act on it in a timely manner.

In a June 2010 survey of the DomPrep40, an advisory board of disaster response practitioners and opinion leaders, nine out of 10 respondents said they are not staffed to monitor social media applications and respond in a major event. Furthermore, 90 percent of respondents also felt that the public expects some action based on social media applications.

Representatives from local, state and federal government cited their own experiences with social media, from local tweets and posts during “Snowmaggedon” to text messages sent in Haiti that resulted in Marines evacuating people who needed help.

Merni Fitzgerald, public affairs director for the Fairfax County, Va., government, discussed one of the challenges of this new media, remarking that while her county’s 9-1-1 systems operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no one is monitoring social media around the clock.

The social media, disaster response, non-profit and government leaders had a working lunch to brainstorm ways to better aggregate and respond to information on social media sites. Participants discussed how social media tools can be used to distribute preparedness information ahead of a disaster as well as tips on what people can do afterwards.

“We can help prevent emergencies from becoming disasters,” said Brian Humphrey of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

The first people to respond during a disaster are not usually trained responders or other professionals—frequently, they are simply bystanders. The enormous potential of social media is to leverage this fact to turn bystanders into lifesavers.

As people in distress turn to Twitter, the Red Cross seeks the most efficient ways to respond

Thursday, August 12, 2010: By Susan KinzieWashington Post Staff Writer

After the earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross began receiving tweets from people trapped under collapsed buildings. With much of the country lacking cellphone service, people sought help however they could.

But the Red Cross, like many other disaster-relief organizations and emergency responders, didn’t have a good way to handle those pleas. Relief workers went through messages manually, contacting search-and-rescue teams, trying to pinpoint locations. It was the first big sign that humanitarian response was being changed dramatically by new technology.

But if someone screams for help on Facebook or Twitter, will anyone hear?

In an online survey of 1,058 people released this week, the Red Cross found that people are increasingly using social media in emergencies, and agencies such as police and fire departments are using it to issue warnings. But most are not ready to respond to electronic distress calls. Ninety percent of first-responders said they don’t have the staffing to monitor incoming messages and respond rapidly.

On Thursday, the Red Cross will lead a discussion at its headquarters in downtown Washington with emergency-response leaders, technology experts and at least one social media swami to try to sort through the challenges of coordinating response to floods of real-time information. “We’ll have 100 people live-blogging in the [Hall of Service], in the same place where people were rolling bandages during the first world war,” said Gail McGovern, president and chief executive of the Red Cross.

Some 70 percent of those responding to the Red Cross survey said emergency agencies should be monitoring social media.

People are working quickly to create new models. During recent hurricanes, some built instant networks posting information about flooding, road closures and evacuation routes onto maps.

Facebook, which got more than 1,500 status updates a minute soon after the Haiti earthquake, created a global disaster relief page. Techies held a “hacks of kindness” meeting.

And CrisisCommons, a volunteer network based in Washington, quickly created tools such as a Creole-to-English translator that rescue workers could use on their phones and interactive street maps using phone-based location technology. “The more people get trained and understand how to use the tools that are available, you’re going to see a lot more people helping out their neighbors,” said Heather Blanchard, co-founder of CrisisCommons.

As tech experts conjure solutions, the Red Cross plans to use social media to send a message: In an emergency, call 911. It’s still the best way to get help fast.

“Follow” or “Friend” Red Cross for the Latest Safety Tips

The American Red Cross Lakeland Chapter is using twitter and facebook as another way to communicate to the public safety tips and updates on our programs and services.

To “follow” Jody Weyers, Volunteer and Communcations director for the American Red Cross Lakeland Chapter searc h for “jweyers2” on twitter.

“Friend” the Lakeland Chapter on Facebook, search for “Red Cross Lakeland Chapter”

Check out the following news story on WBAY on how social media is playing a role in updating information regarding the winter storms.  Click here for news story.

Text version of story:

Snow Storm has Organizations All A-Twitter

By Kristin Byrne

Police departments, schools, and businesses in our area are turning to the Internet to keep the public prepared and safe during this snow storm.

The “tweets” on Twitter are all about this blizzard hitting Northeast Wisconsin.

UW-Fox Valley is telling students what to do if classes are canceled. Fond du Lac police are tweeting followers about what kind of weather to expect.

Law enforcement agencies credit social networking sites for keeping the public safe during a snow storm.

“We’ll give updates as we get them, and we’ll give safety tips — the usual ones for every year: Slow down; plan ahead; take some extra time, you know; if you don’t have to go out, don’t; stay home,” Lieutenant Jim Runge, Green Bay Police Department, said.

Organizations like the American Red Cross are updating social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, too.

The Red Cross Lakeland Chapter says it tweeted several times Tuesday. One reminded people to keep a blanket, a supply kit with snacks, and a shovel in your car during a snow storm.

“This is another tool we can utilize that people can read it and those who are following my account can repost it or retweet it to other individuals for those winter safety tips,” Jody Weyers of the Red Cross said.

Postings that can be pretty useful when you’re dealing with a monster of a storm.