Social media can play an important role in a community’s emergency response

History has proven time and again that communication is often hampered when a natural disaster strikes. Wildfires create widespread chaos that expands beyond political and government-managed borders; flooding events can evolve quickly, making it difficult for first responders to know what’s going on in the corners of their jurisdictions; hurricanes bring ashore intense wind, splintering telephone poles and overwhelming regional telecommunication networks.  

Often, at least for a little while, those left in the aftermath of a natural disaster must lean on their neighbors for support. 

A community’s ability to bounce back is influenced greatly by its resiliency—and a driving factor behind a community’s ability to recover lies in the strength of its social cohesion, or solidarity among neighbors. Social media, which connects neighbors and strangers alike, can help foster that resiliency during a disaster. And beyond connecting neighbors, the implications of digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for emergency managers are sweeping.

“Different types of social media can be complementary in risk and crisis management. The social networking media can help enhance coordination among volunteers and emergency services. The content sharing media can help in conducting situational awareness by identifying images or videos of how a crisis is evolving in real time,” noted Jessica Ports Robbins, a technical advisor at the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, in a brief about social media’s role during an emergency.

“The collaborative knowledge sharing media can help develop dialogues between different stakeholders in a risk or crisis management situation. The blogging or micro blogging tools, such as Twitter, can be used to share facts in real time, but also to convey recommendations and warnings very rapidly,” she noted.

And after the fact, social media can play a pivotal role in preparation for the next event. Given the abstract nature of human connection, social cohesion can be a difficult barometer for civic leaders to quantify before its merit is tested. In this, tracking social media communication can help community managers better understand connections in their community.

“People in a more resilient community are more willing to volunteer and help each other during a disaster. They are also better informed, therefore knowing who to ask for help, what resources are available, and how to help during a disaster,” said Gabriela Gongora-Svartzman, a researcher from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College in Pennsylvania who penned a recent report published in the journal Risk Analysis along with Jose E. Ramirez-Marquez, of the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

The researchers, who took into account more than 6 million twitter posts made during hurricanes Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico), found that analyzing posts both during and after a disaster “could help decision makers learn how to plan for and mitigate the impacts of (future) severe weather events in their communities,” an explanation of the report’s findings says.  

Gongora-Svartzman and Ramirez-Marquez tracked and combined a number of digital metrics “to create a single measurement of social cohesion. One of those metrics is information dissemination. This refers to the intensity of tweets, or communication between participants, during the timeline captured for each hurricane. This timeline of social media activity for each hurricane shows how active participants were on each day before, during, and after the hurricane,” the statement says. 

Following Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico, for example, the analysis documented a significant spike in conversations on Twitter that continued for more than a week after the hurricane had passed, “signifying that post-disaster management strategies were being put in place, rescues were occurring and rebuilding efforts” were being launched.

“If we measure and understand social cohesion within communities, then we can seek to increase cohesion—through policies, community programs, and other strategies—which in turn will increase the resilience of communities,” said Gongora-Svartzman.  

In order to be in a position to tap into the power of social media when its needed the most, Ports Robbins suggests that local governments expand their online awareness by “fostering citizen-led social media use through volunteer technology communities” and development comprehensive social media strategies.

Taking steps ahead of time to solidify a social media strategy is important because official sources could get lost in the mix.

“Governments can no longer focus their risk and crisis communication solely on how much to share and how to package it. Rather, they face a large numbers of citizens, volunteers, professionals, who can exchange between themselves critical information, and respond both locally or through remote action,” Ports Robbins wrote. “Government officers need to take into account this major change in their risk and communication strategy, and become a steering force for this powerful source of help, information and energy.”

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