October 4, 2022

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Emergencies and Social Media

Emergencies and Social Media

“This is only a test. For the next 60 seconds this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.” Until the early 1990s, you heard this test weekly from every broadcaster in the United States. It was followed by a tone, and a closing announcement to assure you that it was only a test. But if this were an actual emergency . . .

Welcome to the Ice Storm of 2008 that left over 1.4 million people in the northeastern US in the dark – and cold.

Earlier this week throughout the northeastern Unied States, radio and TV programs were being interrupted by the newer Emergency Alert System to inform people who were still without power to prepare for days in the dark. This starts to beg the question: can social media be a part of the future Emergency Alert System?

People Are Social (Or Be Happy Being Miserable Together)

I ventured out after the storm to find the few open WI-FI hotspots very crowded. People were online catching up on work, letting families know they were okay and powering their cell phones. I heard several stories about shoppers borrowing power outlets in retail stores to recharge their cell phones.

People who may not normally converse with others were getting into extended conversations with strangers. And the strangers were very receptive. They shared their ideas, pains, best practices and creative solutions. People DO naturally form communities and are prone to share their stories. As long as they are not both going for the last blanket at a shelter, people tend to become more gregarious. But to be honest, I’m not sure about that last blanket thing.

Social Media’s New Role

The New Scientist reported on a University of Colorado at Boulder study showing social media tools were more accurate personal information tools than traditional media sources.

The researchers made several observations about people in the area of the October, 2007 Southern California wildfires. Using “blogs, annotatable maps, photo sites and instant messenging [sic] services, they were able to gather and disseminate information on, for example, the progress of the fire, the location of evacuation areas and shelters, and which schools and businesses were closed – information unavailable through traditional channels.”

Also studied were the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. The “… team found that the first Wikipedia page on the killings went up within an hour and a half, with an “I’m OK at VT” Facebook group starting just 20 minutes later.”

“Instead of rumour-mongering, we see socially produced accuracy,” concluded the team.

Fast forward to the Ice Storm of 2008

Late on Thursday, December 11, 2008, rain changed to freezing rain over much of the New England states. Widespread power outages resulted from the up to three inches of ice on power lines. The next day, increasing winds made a bad situation much worse, bringing down icy power lines.

People used Twitter to reach out to each other. Some were looking to find generators and warm places for their families. Many were successful. Contacts are generally not among strangers, but among a network of people with whom they’ve connected over time. Twitter is easy to use and works on most mobile phones, which is a big plus during a blackout.

As the storm moved in, some media outlets stuck a person on Twitter in hopes they can figure it out. (Or it seemed that way). Some news organizations kept “tweeting” their headlines after the content aired or went to press, rather than as news happens. Many news organizations were not in a mood for conversation and clearly do not get social media. Some, on the other hand, did very well.

Twitter saw thousands of messages (or “tweets”) from users sharing information.  In contrast, by the end of Day 3, Flickr had over 7,500 photos, Facebook had less than 500 users in the Ice Storm 08 groups, and MySpace even fewer users in storm-related groups.

For sharing real-time information and getting assistance, Twitter was the place to be.

Someone got it right

… And it wasn’t who I thought it would be. New Hampshire was the hardest hit state with over 60% of the state losing power.

The state’s largest electric provider, Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) started using the Twitter handle “@PSNH” to communicate nearly hourly updates and responding directly to customers.

The evening of Day 3, they posted a YouTube video to communicate the scope of the storm. President and C.O.O. of PSNH Gary Long explained from under a power line being repaired that “this storm far exceeds our worse storm of all time which was an ice storm in 1998 when we had about 55,000 customers out.” This storm resulted in over 300,000 PSNH customers without power.

While it appeared semi-scripted, it appeared honest and wasn’t behind a desk. It was outside in the cold.

An Interesting Idea

Chris Brogan, a well-known social media and technology veteran, suggested in his blog that Twitter develop a second channel for emergencies.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been among the organizations to use Twitter to help identify areas needing help.

While I see the value, the devil will be in the details. Enhancing the already existing Emergency Alert System and porting it to several popular social networks may be a possibility.

What is clear is that we are no longer just consumers of content. We are also sharing in the creation of important content.

Wayne Kurtzman is a senior marketing analyst who loves the shiny
toys of technology and online communities. He has led knowledge
management and web analytics practices for startups and larger
companies including Intel. Wayne also is active at the international
level of Destination ImagiNation, a not-for-profit organization that
fosters teamwork, innovation and creative problem solving skills in
students from kindergarten through college.

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