Online Social Networks Aid Disaster Survival And Recovery

Did you know online social networks are about much more than socializing?

The New Scientist reports on an article in the journal Science calling for Web-based alternatives to traditional disaster call centers, similar to social networking sites MySpace, Wikipedia and YouTube. I can relate, as the most reliable travel information I received during this week's Valentine's Day winter storm came not from airline or agent call centers, but from fellow travelers texting and chatting with me!

With the likelihood of traditional call centers becoming overwhelmed during disasters, citizens could "use PCs or cell phones to access the site and receive vital updates from the authorities while also sharing information with one another," according to The New Scientist. Such systems "could be at least as valuable as an emergency call center or a radio or TV-based alert system," the New Scientist continues, citing the Science article written by Ben Shneiderman and Jennifer Preece at the University of Maryland. Shneiderman also discusses grant aspirations for building a new social network to test for his own campus.



I agree with most of these assertions, but disaster-management professionals should focus primarily on harnessing naturally occurring Web-based social networks, similar to offline social networks. For example, it is typical for emergency personnel to plan ahead with existing social networks and organizational infrastructure inherent in schools, churches, businesses and government institutions, as well as informal groups. Researcher Karen Tay, from Tulane University, after surveying Katrina evacuees, found that social interactions within groups of individuals, more so than the influence of media, had the biggest influence on evacuation and planning activities.

Similarly, it would be wise to tap into existing social networks as they naturally occur online -- whether through existing community or business email lists, online discussion groups or even individual blogs. So instead of building a new network that nobody even knows exists, emergency personnel should leverage the ease and dispersion of existing networks that have already proven their utility in real life. Leveraging means understanding their pathways, influence, capabilities and limits, and investing in planning and relationships with the leaders and hosts of those networks. Follow and plan around where consumer attention already flows. And as we learned from Katrina, online recovery programs benefit dearly from leadership efforts to organize and standardize information, as well as make it searchable and retrievable.

But perhaps more important than tapping into online social networks is ensuring there is proper hardware infrastructure. Just as earthquakes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks can unleash hysteria on emergency call centers, these types of crises can also kill the hardware, networks and power sources that enable online social networks to work in the first place!

During his experience supporting the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, John "Hannibal" Stokes from Ars Technica asked: "Once disaster victims have their basic needs attended to, the problem then becomes, how do we get them out of the shelter and on the path toward something resembling a normal, healthy life?"

Stokes noted that this problem comes down to two basic social-networking problems: first, rebuilding shattered social networks, and, second, weaving permanently displaced families into existing social networks in new locales. Both of these problems are uniquely suited to the Internet, and long-distance phone service. However, Internet connectivity and long-distance phone service are two services that frequently fail, and which emergency and recovery professionals are often ill-equipped to deal with. No, there were no Red Cross IT professionals on hand, he added. (Separately, I suppose the Katrina situation was worsened by tech illiteracy among many residents.)

In the end, I agree with those University of Maryland computer scientists: Governments and municipalities should invest in Web-based social networking for crisis plans and disaster recovery systems, but they should focus resources on existing social-network platforms. Moreover, these efforts should be integrated with much larger communications and networking systems, full of redundancies, which span the Internet to traditional telecom and even radio among other platforms (not unlike a cross-media promotional plan).

Have social networks ever helped you in a crisis or disaster-recovery situation?

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