Disaster Survivors Turn to Social Media

Unfortunately the world has seemed especially disaster-prone in recent years, including earthquakes in China and Haiti, the combined earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, and Hurricane Sandy and Midwestern tornadoes here in the U.S. While there’s obviously not much we mere human beings can do to prevent nature from wreaking havoc, technology can help mitigate the impact and aid recovery after disaster strikes -- and social media plays a big role here.


According to a study by the University of San Francisco, three out of four people (76%) who have experienced a disaster use social media to check on family and friends and make sure that they’re safe, and 24% use social media to let family and friends know they’re safe. Meanwhile 37% use social media to buy supplies and find shelter, and 25% download disaster-related apps. A remarkable one in five Americans have used an emergency app, and the same proportion of disaster survivors contact emergency responders via social media, Web sites, or email, with 35% of this group posting a request for help directly to a responder’s Facebook page, and 25% sending a direct Twitter message. Overall 80% of Americans expect emergency agencies to monitor and respond to social media platforms.


With all this in mind, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it is expanding its use of social media for disaster response, as well as preparedness education and outreach. The FEMA social push includes a new “Disaster Reporter” app for Android, Apple and BlackBerry, which enables people in affected areas to upload pictures and information about disasters, which are then displayed on an interactive online map. FEMA also unveiled a new social hub that aggregates FEMA Twitter feeds from different offices around the country (the agency currently has 34 different Twitter accounts, as well as three Facebook pages).


In testimony to Congress, FEMA’s senior manager of digital engagement, Shayne Adamski, stated: “Millions of Americans use social media every day to check in on friends and family, learn about current events and share their experiences. FEMA uses social media to be part of this ongoing dialogue and meet people where they are by using tools and platforms they are already familiar with.” FEMA has also embraced mobile: during Hurricane Sandy, for example, the agency created a short code to direct mobile users to disaster shelters, and a FEMA smartphone app provides maps showing available shelters.


Plenty of state and local agencies are also adopting social media for emergency response. Back in April I wrote about SF72, a social network Web site and app created by the city government of San Francisco specifically for emergencies. The platform allows SF residents to register their homes and list supplies they own which may be useful in an emergency (for example portable generators), as well as their own disaster-response skills. Members will be organized into neighborhoods, so in the event of an emergency they will automatically be able to see what resources are available nearby. People who need help can post their requests for assistance on the same neighborhood-level communities.


Some early tests indicate that social media can also be useful in warning of impending disasters -- even for sudden, unexpected events like earthquakes. In January the Chinese city of Chengdu, with over 14 million inhabitants, used social media to send warnings of an approaching earthquake shockwave to users on Weibo, a microblogging site that is often called the Chinese Twitter. Chinese studies have shown that timely alerts could actually make a big difference in survival rates; according to one study, casualties could be reduced by 14% if people in the affected area received a three-second warning, increasing to 39% with a ten-second warning, and 63% for a 20-second warning.  Most earthquake shockwaves travel at a speed of three to four miles per second, so if the epicenter of a quake were located 50 miles away from an urban area, that would leave about ten to 15 seconds before the shockwave arrived.

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