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Responding to disasters in the age of social media

When faced with national emergencies social media offers a vital tool for empowering individual citi

Two events in the first half of 2009 have placed considerable strain on the capabilities of central government, on local authorities and on our emergency services. First, the snow blizzards in early February engulfed large swathes of the country and disrupted significant amounts of the nation's infrastructure. Now, the outbreak of swine flu has once again raised questions about whether the government is suitably prepared and ready for action. Little, however, has been made of the important role that individual citizens can play during such times of crisis and crucially the value of social media in the whole process.

Last week, the British government launched a mass public health campaign on swine flu. The campaign includes television, print and radio adverts as well as a promise that the NHS will send 25 million households a swine flu information leaflet. The Department of Health will begin distributing the leaflets this week, a week after the Mexican minister of health confirmed that at least 20 people had died from a mystery illness.

This may seem only a short time ago but since the outbreak the virus has spread across the globe - carried by people travelling from Mexico - and it is crucial, therefore, that the government provides advice and information to the population quickly and easily in order to prepare the public. In the past it was a case of speed being the essence of a robust communications plan, but today action by individuals, families and communities also has an essential role to play. The promise by government that they can distribute tens of millions of leaflets is a reminder of the significant resources that can be brought to bear during a crisis. But it also raises fundamental questions about whether this traditional broadcast model is the right approach given the speed with which the virus has spread and the communications tools at the government’s disposal.

A recent technology phenomenon that is making waves in the US and elsewhere - the UK by comparison is somewhat of a late developer - is the use of social media in disaster management and emergency planning. The authorities and the voluntary sector have begun to realise the potential of using social media to transmit information quickly, catalyse action and provide a mechanism for feedback - all at a relatively low cost. At least one company in the US claims to have utilised social media to identify the outbreak of swine flu. By monitoring and analysing social media traffic on twitter feeds, blogs and other social networking sites, Veratect - a biosurveillance start-up based in Seattle - was able to pick up early indicators of behavioural change.

A number of other companies also exist – engaging in the so-called scraping of information from the web and in mashing it together with Google Maps to develop a real time picture of events as they unfold. Last week Twitter made headlines when it was found that nearly two per cent of all tweets globally made some reference to swine flu. The potential then for governments and voluntary organisations to communicate important messages and advice to the public using social media is vast.

One problem that the government has in using the current communication model is whether its message leads to action. The first batch of NHS leaflets will arrive over the next few days and will include information on what to do – but the likelihood that this will catalyse people into action and raise the necessary awareness remains far from certain.

Significantly, the difference between the traditional model of communication and social media is the invitation to act. Broadcasting messages offers information, in the form of advice and guidance, to the public. Social media changes that equation by inviting us to take part and share information with others. This is crucial when it comes to disaster management and emergency planning. No longer is the focus solely on the individual but on the individual and their network - something that is crucial when important information needs to be passed on swiftly.

Lastly, social media acts as a feedback mechanism. When all 25 million leaflets have been distributed how will the government know whether the public have read them or acted on the advice? Put simply, it won’t. Social media on the other hand plays a different role – nudging us to create and sustain dialogue between individuals and networks – all the while passing information back and forth. For the emergency services this could be a vital tool and has proven successful in some parts of the US. The downside to so much information is that it can lead to false positives and confusing messages.

Undoubtedly, however, social media allows individuals and communities to share and cooperate with one another outside the framework of traditional institutions and organisations. Inside government, the digital revolution has the potential to transform: challenging bureaucracies, improving services and producing innovative solutions in social policy. Our increasing social visibility is having a profound effect on how we connect to each other and mobilise groups for the right kind of cause. In our brittle society individuals and communities play an increasingly important role in responding to threats and natural disasters. Social media can empower citizens to act by giving them information and connectivity, and in doing so help to build a resilient nation.

Charlie Edwards is Head of the Security programme at Demos and author of the recently published pamphlet, Resilient Nation