Legitimizing the Role of Social Media in Public Safety
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High-impact and high visibility events, like Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon Bombing, have revealed the proliferation of new information and communications channels, with the widespread use of mobile devices and social media. While accepted as a communications channel useful in preparedness and recovery, social media’s role within the larger information environment and operational workflow remains to be seen.
Generally speaking, social media has been looked at and used by government as a means to “push” information to the public. While government officials would like to take advantage of information that is coming from the public via social media channels, there is often hesitation due to the question of how to verify the information that is being conveyed in this fashion. Given the critical importance of the accuracy of information for decision-making in a crisis, the inability to determine the trustworthiness of the source of information gives pause to the use of information obtained in this fashion by decision-makers.
But the large amounts of information shared through social media can be critical in augmenting existing information already in the hands of decision-makers. When viewed in this fashion, the often large amounts of information provided through social media channels can become a crucial factor. Consider the following:
What information is needed? Following an event, essential elements of information will require consideration. For example, in a storm, the status of the roads might play a critical role in the decision between calling for an evacuation or shelter-in-place order. Additionally, the demographic breakdown of areas that are, or will be affected by the storm, combined with the status of critical infrastructure, the location of available shelters, the public’s ability to evacuate, etc. will affect the decision as well.
What information is already available? While many of these variables are known or easily attained (e.g. census data, power status, etc.), data is often out-of-date, inaccurate, or incomplete. Once specific information needs have been identified and available information has been tapped, gaps become exceedingly clear.
The role of social media: From this clarity, emergency management and response officials can more easily define, target, and search for the information specifically needed via non-traditional channels. For example, if it is known that the roads typically used for evacuation are not safe for travel, emergency management might decide to call for the public to stay-in-place. Given this decision, however, new variables now require attention, including: did the public receive this message, was it appropriate, are they heeding the direction, if they are staying at home, do they have enough food or water, do they require medical attention, will they (or have they) attempt to evacuate or travel despite the direction, where will they go if so? Many of these questions require information that is produced in real-time, the answers of which are only available if shared via social media updates, text messages to friends and family, or calls to 9-1-1.
Decisions, Actions, and Resources Needed. Once an event occurs and preliminary action is taken based on known information, the scenario will most likely change. In the first twelve to twenty-four hours, public safety officials must triage community needs based on quickly changing and dynamic information. Information gleaned from social media may help in prioritizing response activities by providing ground-level clarity about community needs and status. Individuals who did not require assistance change status; medical emergencies, breakdowns, accidents, and crimes occur; reported needs needs are met through the provision of unofficial resources (e.g. aid from community and ad-hoc groups, involvement of non-profit response partners, etc.), and more.
What’s Next? Social media, if strategically added to the larger information environment, can help to provide the real-time “what,” the “who,” the “why,” and the “how,” and may even help in predicting the cascading effects of decisions, actions, and changing hazards.. Integrating social data within all aspects of response, from planning, to training and exercises, will help to legitimize its role in public safety and emergency response.
 Cohen, Sara Estes, Hyjek, Bill. Social Media as a Sensor – Leveraging Crowd-sourced Data for Early Warning and Response. January 25, 2011. http://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/social-media-as-a-sensor