Social Media in Emergencies


Back in the 1970’s the Independent Radio Network was being rolled out.  A programme controller at one station told me that the best thing that can happen to a new local broadcaster is a fall of snow or a flood.  There’s nothing like chaos to get people tuned in.

Last year I was working with a company to develop tools to help people to share information quickly during a public emergency such as flood, snow, bombing or petro-chemical spill.
We developed plans and ideas, but they came to nothing.  Maybe we were just a little ahead of the curve – or maybe we didn’t push the idea hard enough.  In Northern Ireland during the recent damaging* snow fall/water shortage/thaw, a combination of social media users and broadcasters (mainly local radio) kept people and themselves up to date on the chaos.  Social media were also used to criticise the impotence and ineptitude of politicians and public servants who dealt with the deluge so poorly. (*Damaging to the economy, damaging to public confidence in politicians and those charged with providing essential services.)

On a recent visit to California, FEMA chief Craig Fugate’s agenda read like an all-star roster of tech companies: Start the day at Twitter and Craigslist, drop by Wired at lunch, then on to visit Apple andFacebook.
Because he’s seen that when all hell breaks loose, disaster survivors turn to social networks — both in their neighborhoods and online. Even in the rubble of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, text messaging still worked.

“We’re there to support the survivors,” Fugate says. “They shouldn’t have to fit our system, we should fit how they communicate, the tools they’re using.”

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