Using social media in times of crisis

StephenCollins
Stephen Collins Founder and Chief Troublemaker, acidlabs

Posted on April 5th 2011

On 4 April, I attended Social Media in Times of Crisis — a symposium held by the Eidos Institute at the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane. The day was designed to address a number of issues covering public and government use of social media tools in crisis situations, use by first and subsequent responders and to examine academic research on these matters that has been done specifically with respect to the recent Queensland Floods.

The day began with Kym Charlton (Executive Director Media and Public Affairs, Queensland Police Service) who discussed the rapid increase in maturity of QPS’ presence in social media over the past 12 months. Kym had a number of interesting points to make, including:

  • QPS presence in social media (on Facebook) was signed off May 10 2010 at Deputy Commissioner level as a six month trial. As a early December 2010, prior to the floods, they had 6000 “Likes” on their Facebook page. They were delighted at this point and had no idea what was to come;
  • the entire media team is responsible for social media and it is tightly integrated into other comms and public safety work;
  • QPS has no formalised social media policy. It has become a case of just do it. The benefits are there to be realised. Kym noted specifically that as a part of QPS’ overall strategic communications that the social media component is the “easiest, fastest, most efficient way to get information to the people of Queensland as well as our media stakeholders.” She noted that elements of the traditional media have expressed a level of unhappiness that they are no longer the gatekeepers for information coming from QPS;
  • social media “really provided a connection” to Queenslanders during the floods and now, on an ongoing basis as QPS has made real efforts to engage with their audience. The same material that goes out over social media goes out over more traditional channels such as radio and television;
  • the dissemination of public safety information via social media is seen as having a direct correlation to saving lives. Clearance for information distribution is at the sworn officer level, as it is for discussions of such matters with the media and public generally. No additional clearance process is necessary. On the matter of officers using social media directly in the field, the matter is under consideration, but not ready for action;
  • at 12 months into a serious effort on social media, QPS are “still new at this”;
  • QPS media now has over 178,000 Likes on Facebook and has an active engagement with many of those people. Often, things are posted by the public on QPS’s Facebook page that they had not anticipated (examples were given such as family members of offenders and victims posting information or tributes). This does not stop them being posted. Little is ever removed unless it breaches the page code of conduct published there.

After Kym, Eileen Culleton from Ipswich City Council and the gov2qld user group spoke on the development of the Emergency 2.0 Wiki:

  • the wiki is under development and is intended for use by the public, responders and government as a lightweight, agile way to improve information with respect to emergency and disaster management without the need to process emergent matters and best practice through a lengthy lessons learned process that fails to adapt to changing situations and new information;
  • the wiki, with an initial focus on Queensland services, will provide “trusted, locally sourced information allowing communities to self-mobilise, develop resilience and leverage social capital”;
  • one of the drivers for the wiki was the Social Media for Emergency Management project that emerged from the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

Drs Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at QUT spoke on their research into the connections and analysis of social media traffic, particularly Twitter, during the Queensland floods:

  • they have done extensive data visualisation work on the #qldfloods hashtag to map the key actors and network ties of those sending messages across the entire range of incidents and into the present day;
  • their research indicates strong reliance on official sources such as QPS, other emergency services and the mainstream media, particularly the ABC, as validator sources, even in wider social media use;
  • use of a hashtag, such as #qldfloods (and its equivalent in other crises) ensures visibility and discoverability;
  • agencies involved in disaster management should simply “learn and do” rather than wait to get involved in using social tools for their work.

ABC Innovation’s Monique Potts spoke about the ABC’s use of Ushahidi to gather information from official sources and the public during the floods:

  • information was available rapidly and was able to be validated almost as quickly;
  • provision of open data by some agencies made the data gathering easy. Reticence on the part of other agencies made this measurably harder;
  • during this session, I noted use of Ushahidi in several other instances of disaster and conflict including the Pakistan floods, Haiti earthquake (1 and 2) (partly the subject of the Disaster Relief 2.0 Report published by the UN recently), the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami and most recently and on OCHA’s explicit request for tracking the emergent situation in Libya (it is worth noting that I am a recently added member of the Standby Volunteer Task Force and in the past have assisted in adding data to OpenStreetMap efforts and some Ushahidi instances).

Dr Kelly McWilliam, a Toowoomba resident and researcher in media use at USQ spoke on Facebook use specifically and noted that when users of social media combine in such situations, “citizen information seekers become information providers”. In this context, the combined efforts of official information sources and less formal information providers are seen to add real richness to emergent disaster information.

There were several other presenters — journalists and academics — all of whom provided their own particular insights to the symposium.

I was able to make several contributions across the day, based on my experience in collaborative communities and involvement with the volunteer technical communities working on disaster information.

I feel this event, the upcoming emergency management communications conference sponsored by the Attorney-General’s Department and other events overseas with a disaster management focus, as well as several reports on the use of connected and social tools in crisis and disaster situations indicate a gap in Australian authorities’ knowledge, research and training.

The matter of connected communications, and maturity in its use, either at the operational level or at the strategic level is a subject that gets little coverage in our events or research. As a now mature technology, use of social media and its accompanying cultural norms — embracing of emergent information, a capacity to rapidly validate new information and to fold that information into practice, and the capacity to collaborate — ought rightly be something that government generally and disaster and conflict responders in particular do as business as usual.

A summary of the Twitter conversation from the day is available at the #crisiscomm hashtag.

An ABC News story on the symposium is available at the ABC web site.

StephenCollins

Stephen Collins

Founder and Chief Troublemaker, acidlabs

Frequently self-appointed tricky problem solver driven by a need to help people and organisations effect change in their capacity to retain, distribute and share knowledge. Enjoys (perhaps too much) affecting organisational culture around breaking down siloed and selfish attitudes to knowledge. More than a little passionate about developing and using great social applications as a way to help people and organisations do their jobs better. I am equally able to think at 40000
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