Come Together. Right Now. Over (Social) Me(dia).
Throughout my previous posts, it glaringly clear that the Internet and social media are almost inseparable from our flesh and blood existence, and that this dependence can have both positive and negative consequences. When it comes to Emergency Response and relief, it is no different.
Use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have organically found themselves a part of first response, planning and dissemination of information during emergencies and natural disasters across the globe (Crowe 2012; Gao, Barbier & Goolsby 2011). As the benefits of collaborative social media platforms are realised, developers have created platforms specifically for disaster operations which have been implemented with great success (Ford 2012).
A most notable example is Ushahidi, an open-source platform developed in response to widespread ethnic violence following Kenya’s 2007 presidential election (Crowe 2012). It gathers information from a variety of public sources and collates them on an interactive map of the affected area, providing a visual representation of crisis impact and areas most in need (Crowe 2012; Yange, Zhang, Frank, Robertson, Jennings, Roddy & Lichtenstern 2014).
Example of Ushahidi Map of Haiti Earthquake. (Source http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/feb/04/mapping-open-source-victor-keegan)
As first responders to the site of an emergency or disaster are most often average citizens who have direct access to social media on handheld devices, vast quantities of critical information can be spread within seconds (Lindsay, B. R. 2011). This is particularly useful when a situation affects a large area and traditional means of communication fail (e.g. jammed telecommunication networks) (Zeng 2011).
Among the many other benefits of social media platforms and disaster applications, is that of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing encourages capable crowds to contribute their “knowledge, skills, abilities, equipment, resources, time and infrastructure” to produce data and solutions that far exceed abilities of individuals or disaster relief on the ground (Crowe 2012, p. 202).
A literal world of skill and knowledge can be sourced at little or no cost, which is critical when physical or financial resources of disaster stricken areas are restricted (Zheng 2011). Citizens will volunteer during times of crisis due to “utopian feelings” and formation of a “therapeutic community”, increasing the likelihood of high quality output from crowdsourcing efforts. (Alexander 2014)
Although crowdsourcing via social media seems like a dream come true for resource stretched emergency managers and volunteer disaster teams, governments and emergency response organisations have been reluctant to fully embrace these new technologies (Alexander 2014; Crowe 2012; Zeng 2011). This reluctance is understandable when the limitations and dangers of online crowdsourcing are taken into account.
One such complication is spread of misinformation. Whether it is unintentional or malicious, in complex situations where speculation can overwhelm the facts rumours can be fertilised by social media (Alexander 2014; Ford 2012).
Misinformation may slip through the cracks of peer-verification, therefore, current platforms still require significant man-power to sift through the masses of information to find the ‘diamonds in the rough’
Another challenge lies in consistency of reliable and skilful contributions and the capacity of platforms to facilitate streamlined collaboration when aid requests depend on fast and accurate responses (Yang et al 2014). While such features are in development, significant focus is required to improve existing platforms (Yang et. al. 2014; Zeng 2011).
Dependence on digital applications is also dangerous when there are populations (on the basis of age, income education or personal preference) who have limited or no access to technology (Alexander 2014). Especially when these populations require the most assistance in times of crisis.
Although these concerns are very real, to ignore the role that social media will continue to play in disaster relief will only slow down the inevitable global incorporation of crowdsourcing and social media into the mainstream of emergency management (Alexander 2014).
Instead, governments and organisations need to work together to develop policies, procedures and best practice guidelines when it comes to using digital technologies in a collaborative and integrated way (Bruns, Burgess, Crawford & Shaw 2012; Lindsay 2011). Improving the capabilities of emergency response applications and understanding how to best combine them with traditional communication pathways will help to negate the above challenges and generate more power in sourcing and disseminating correct and useful data.
Alexander, D. E. 2014, ‘Social Media in Disaster Risk Reduction and Crisis Management’, Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 20, pp 717-733.
Bruns, A., Burgess, J., Crawford, K. & Shaw, F. 2012, ‘#qldfloods and @QPSMedia: Crisis Communication of Twitter in the 2011 South East Queensland Floods’, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, Brisbane.
Crowe, A. 2012, Disasters 2.0: The Application of Social Media Systems for Modern Emergency Management, CRC Press.
Ford, H 2012, ‘Crowd Wisdom’, Index on Censorship, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 33-39.
Gao, H., Barbier, G. & Goolsby, R. 2011, ‘Harnessing the Crowdsourcing Power of Social Media for Disaster Relief’, IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol 11, pp. 10-14.
Lindsay B. R. 2011, ‘Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations’, Congressional Research Service Report.
Yange, D., Zhang, D., Frank, K., Robertson, P., Jennings, E., Roddy, M. & Lichtenstern, M. 2014, ‘Providing real-time assistance in disaster relief by leveraging crowdsourcing power’, Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, Vol 18, pp. 2025-2034.