How can social media help in disaster relief efforts?
The short history of social media has shown it very adept at covering disasters. Media coverage of the 2005 7/7 London bombings was notable for the way journalists used citizen mobile phone footage and social media commentary to help tell a fast moving and very confusing story.
Since then, whenever a disaster occurs you can be sure someone will be close by, camera phone and connected social network account at the ready, to provide breaking news footage.
Because of this new broadcast phenomenon we now know exactly what it looks like to be swept up in a tsunami, escape a terrorist attack, live through an earthquake and even be part of an emergency plane crash landing on New York’s Hudson river.
Indeed, the knowledge that everyday folk are likely to capture dramatic news moments has prompted major media organisations like the BBC to search for social media viewpoints for most of their breaking news stories. CNN has gone one better. It has set up iReport, an entire division on its website devoted to citizen journalism.
So as Hurricane Sandy caused havoc across New York, Long Island and the Jersey shore it was natural that people went on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to post and share their images and reflections of the super storm. It was also natural, I suppose, for some in the media to be a bit complacent about the ubiquitous role social media now plays in our connected society. Sure it helps beleaguered, understaffed media operations capture eye-popping images but that’s just scratching the surface of how social media can inform and help in and after a crisis.
During the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, as well as during New Zealand’s Christchurch earthquake in 2010, crowdsourced, crisis mapping sites provided by the likes of Ushahidi and Google Maps proved crucial in helping local people and organisations identify communities that were crying out for relief.
The two businesses were in action again last week, providing platforms for people around the tri-state area to map the flooding from Hurricane Sandy and helping news organisations like The Huffington Post cover the crisis. Local people also made use of another mapping site, Mappler, to create an up-to-the minute map of open gas stations.
In all these examples, people were using social media sites and tools to connect, share and collaborate on core civic needs even as the region’s own infrastructure was struggling or had failed.
And the authorities themselves wasted no time using social media to show how hard they were working on the clean up; the Metropolitan Transit Authority posted hundreds of photos on its Flickr account, demonstrating how its workers were pumping out flooded tunnels and repairing mile upon mile of damaged subway tracks.
All told it would probably take a small army of crisis analysts and researchers to sift through and make sense of all the created Sandy-related content and the information shared through social media over the past seven days. But that’s exactly the project New York and New Jersey should be undertaking as those states make plans for future flood and hurricane protection.
Too often we look at social media as an ephemeral medium. It’s fast and noisy but also quite disposable in many ways. Yet from a research, data-crunching or mapping point of view, the social media “story” of Hurricane Sandy offers a treasure trove of information that can help us prepare for future storms.
For years climate scientists and weather researchers have been projecting what could happen to New York if it was hit by a super storm. After Sandy, the authorities have a rich mix of scientific and emergency services data combined with thousands of first-hand social media accounts and maps of what went wrong and what went right during the storm.
Establishing a collaborative, forward-thinking approach to learning from and using social media in a crisis isn’t just important for New York’s tri-state region. It’s likely to be relevant for most major urban areas all over the world. By 2050, nearly 75% of the world’s population are predicted to be living in cities. Most of those cities sit near the coast or on major lakes and rivers. But in an age of increasing extreme weather patterns – notably super storms – living so close to water becomes as much a liability as an aesthetic pleasure.
Cities all over the world are at risk from extreme weather conditions and other infrastructure crises. That’s one reason why, in recent years, a number of companies like Philips, Siemens and Ideo along with NGOs and groups like the C40 Cities have created dedicated research projects aimed at using big data and collaborative techniques (including crowdsourcing) to plan the future of sustainable cities. In one UN-funded project, researchers in Bangkok used a crowdsourcing mobile app to get local people to conduct real time flood monitoring.
But perhaps the most advanced approach to using big data to tackle city infrastructure breakdown is IBM’s smarter cities business offering. In Rio de Janeiro, IBM has worked with local authorities to create a new automated alert system that will notify city officials and emergency personnel when changes occur in the flood and landslide forecast for the city. The system uses algorithms to predict how much rain will fall in a given square kilometer.
The company believes the system will drastically reduce the reaction times in emergency situations by using instantaneous mobile communications, including automated email notifications and instant messaging, to reach emergency personnel and local people.
IBM, through its social business unit, is already becoming an expert at analysing social media conversations and using social technologies to create more effective business operations. Combine this expertise with the big data crunching that has made smarter cities a success and you begin to see how all that online chatter around disasters like Hurricane Sandy might offer valuable insight for building better, more sustainable cities and turn all that social media reaction into action.
This column first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog