Tapping into social media and digital volunteers to improve disaster recovery operations

May 7, 2015 / Project number: 105072015

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A strong online presence was a key component allowing digital volunteers to help during recovery operations following a fictional Hurricane. These tech savvy individuals can work online from anywhere in the world, gathering and analysing social media data to provide a variety of information services to emergency professionals and government organizations during disasters.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms, Canadians are turning to their computers, cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices to engage with their community, keep in touch with friends and family, and stay informed about world events. However, the use of social media is not limited to leisure; emergency responders have recognized a more impactful purpose—one that could save lives.

“We are seeing a major culture change in emergency management and protective services,” said Jason Cameron of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA). “We are moving from a ‘don’t share unless you have to’ environment to one that is more transparent, one where we try and share information unless there is good reason not to.”

“Social media technologies and processes in collaboration with digital volunteers offer the potential to augment emergency management capabilities,” said Philip Dawe, Acting Section Head, Multi-Agency Crisis Management, Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS). “We’ve been doing a lot of work in this area over the last couple of years and most recently, we co-hosted the Digital Volunteer-Supported Recovery Operations Experiment with the Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

The experiment, held from Nov.18-20, 2014, was a collaborative effort between government officials, humanitarian workers, and digital volunteers from across Canada and the United States (U.S.). Participants dealt with a fictitious disaster scenario - a powerful hurricane that tore through areas along the Canada/ U.S. border (Halifax and the Northeastern U.S. coast) - and engaged directly online, using social media, in response to the situation.

Representatives from different organizations played the roles they would usually play, either from the experiment control room in Halifax or virtually from various locations in Canada and the United States. Attendees of the 2014 Red Cross Disaster Management Forum provided additional digital input to the experiment by playing the role of ‘hurricane survivors’. 

Since a large part of the general public is on Twitter and Facebook anyway, tapping into these tools allows important messages to reach greater audiences. We really have to shift the paradigm of thinking of the public as ‘victims’ of disasters to thinking of them as ‘survivors’ who can actively contribute to disaster recovery.

“Since a large part of the general public is on Twitter and Facebook anyway, tapping into these tools allows important messages to reach greater audiences,” said Kate Kaminska, a research analyst at DRDC CSS. “We really have to shift the paradigm of thinking of the public as ‘victims’ of disasters to thinking of them as ‘survivors’ who can actively contribute to disaster recovery.”

During the recovery phase, information was presented to the participants through a closed web portal, which simulated popular social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs. These were used to send and receive messages between emergency management organizations and the public.

At the start of the experiment, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) requested digital volunteer assistance to help manage the large volume of social media information. The Canadian volunteers worked with remotely located digital humanitarians in the United States to deliver regular reports to HRM that captured major issues raised on social media. 

As the experiment unfolded, participants coordinated actions and resources, addressed rumours and misinformation and carried out other disaster management strategies in real-time in response to the evolving hurricane scenario.

HRM also ensured that their website was considered the official source of information for status updates and other important guidance during the recovery by promoting it through their social media channels, primarily the simulated Twitter tool.

The Canadian Red Cross also established a strong social media presence for this experiment. They answered questions from the public, acknowledged contributions made by the public (such as food donations), offered safety tips, and provided links to other support organizations.

“We all have a role to play. From witnesses who share pictures, videos, and comments on social networks, to digital volunteers who monitor, aggregate, and analyze social data, to emergency management officials who realize the full benefits of having a firm grasp of how an incident is evolving based on crowdsourcing,” said Patrice Cloutier, a Team Lead for Canadian Virtual Operations Support Team (CanVOST).

The Experiment design team also developed and provided the Red Cross with a Shelter Management Tool they can continue using after the experiment. The tool allows the user to broadcast, through social media, timely status updates about shelters in the community, thus helping victims of damaged homes.

The experiment clearly demonstrated the benefits of using social media in emergencies and identified areas requiring further study. Participant feedback indicated that the use of social media contributed to a more efficient exchange of information, improved cooperation between digital volunteers and disaster recovery organizations, and promoted more participation within an environment that made sharing information easy. 

Areas identified as needing further development included the need for more social media awareness and education, policy improvements, and training for employees. Grand Falls Windsor Fire Chief Vince Mackenzie said, “Not all responders and emergency managers are at the same level when it comes to social media. Take me, for example. Although I’m a somewhat non-technical fire chief, I do consider myself a little tech savvy in social media but I still found some of the systems a little foreign to me. This highlights how important it is for ‘operational’ emergency managers to gain a better understanding of social media in emergency management. Even if you know a little about it, it’s not enough when it comes to using it in an official capacity during a disaster.”

Jason Cameron adds, “The impacts are far reaching. From response partners, to non-governmental organizations to citizens, we are finding that the timely sharing of meaningful information allows people to make informed decisions to reduce the impact of crisis on themselves, their families, and community. The more you can share, the more resilient you are, as an individual and as an organization.”

The experiment was supported by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), a federal program led by DRDC CSS, in partnership with Public Safety Canada. It was one of the activities under the Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment, known as CAUSE III - a technology experiment series that provides participants with opportunities to use communications technology in a simulated setting to learn how the technology performs under different circumstances. Among the organizations listed in the article, other organizations were involved, including The Province of Nova Scotia (NS) Emergency Management Office, Public Safety Canada Regional Office (Dartmouth, NS), The American Red Cross, Fire Department of Grand Falls-Windsor, U.S. Department of Homeland Security & Technology Directorate, Crisis Commons, Humanity Road and key stakeholders from the first responder community and the private sector.

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