Social media becoming an information lifeline during natural disasters

The next time an earthquake or other disaster unleashes near you, Twitter, Google and Facebook might be useful places to turn. And not just you. Disaster-response agencies are plunging into social media.

They can develop better situational awareness by seeking out your online gripes and observations. Digital platforms also provide an avenue to give more frequent official updates and correct misinformation during a catastrophe.

Kaleb Urike has gone through the kind of disaster the Pacific Northwest is supposedly due for. I met him in Sendai, Japan and asked about a fateful day: March 11 last year.

New Zealander Kaleb Urike used social media to let people know he survived last year's Japanese earthquake and tsunami. (Photo by Tom Banse)

New Zealander Kaleb Urike used social media to let people know he survived last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami. (Photo by Tom Banse)

Ironically, that day Urike was organizing a fundraiser for earthquake victims in his far away hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand when the tables turned. You remember the magnitude 9.0 quake that rocked northeast Japan.

“It lasted for five minutes,” Urike recalls.

“We had to evacuate and go outside. Then it just started snowing for 30 minutes. That’s all I remember, being cold.”

The recent university graduate was unhurt.  His next instinct was to locate other ex-pat workers in the city and confirm they were okay. But the electricity was out and would stay out for the next three days. Phone lines were inoperable or jammed.

Urike says in Sendai, cellular service and mobile data came back first.

“A lot of people could use their smartphones.  So they accessed Facebook and would update to say that they’re okay.”

Urike says he wasn’t a big fan of Facebook until this happened.

“I didn’t think actually it would be as useful as it was,” Urike says. “I would say after the earthquake everyone was on Facebook. I’m glad I do have a Facebook account, because I was going to close it down beforehand.”

Urike also made sure his survivor status was posted on Google Person Finder. Google activated this temporary internet database to help friends and relatives find missing people in the disaster zone.

This is a function traditionally performed by local government or the Red Cross, so what’s Google doing here? Ask Christiaan Adams. He’s a software developer with Google’s in-house crisis response team.

“In times of crisis, people will go to the tools that they know and use regularly,” Adams says. “In their daily lives, they use Google Search. They use Google Maps. These are the places they go for information.”

He says Google isn’t trying to be an alternative to official sources, rather to make those sources more effective.

“Technology is changing so quickly these days that it’s hard for anybody to keep up with the new ways of doing things and the best and latest ways of publishing data. So we try to work with many organizations to help them do that better and to get their information out.”

Adams says Google Person Finder accumulated more than 600,000 records pertaining to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. That compares to 200,000 by the Japanese Red Cross. One difference is that the Red Cross verifies entries to its missing persons database while Google does not.

Government agencies have been slower to jump onto social media platforms than the private sector. Among recent converts are some Northwest wildfire incident commanders.

Kris Eriksen is a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. This summer, she says social media is allowing her to listen and respond from the fire command post in ways she never could before.

“We can sort of hear over-the-backyard-fence discussions among neighbors. We can join groups. We can hear discussion groups and blogs.”

“And,” Eriksen says, “we can get a sense or a pulse from the community and how it is feeling about our response efforts.”

Several positions at the emergency operations center in Vancouver, Wash. are now tasked with engaging with social media during a natural disaster.

Several positions at the emergency operations center in Vancouver, Wash. are now tasked with engaging with social media during a natural disaster. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Bledsoe, CRESA)

Change is also coming to county emergency operations centers. In a major disaster, the center in Vancouver, Washington now has several work stations dedicated to staying on top of Twitter, YouTube, public posts on Facebook and other social media sites. Emergency manager Cheryl Bledsoe says those channels can provide real-time intelligence from what is basically an army of citizen journalists.

“They’re seeing something on fire and taking pictures of it,” Bledsoe explains. “It gives us a much better picture in here of what the disaster looks like outside these four walls.”

Bledsoe has two computer monitors on her desk where she scans and sorts multiple incoming streams of internet chatter with practiced ease.

And yeah, Bledsoe knows you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

“You do see fake information go into the social media streams, but it also gets corrected very quickly.”

During a big emergency, Bledsoe hopes Facebook and Twitter users collaborate to solve some problems themselves, without drawing on over-extended emergency responders.

But not everyone has a smartphone, plus there are people who don’t use social media at all. What about them?

“We still use emergency alert systems, which go out through radio and television broadcast,” Bledsoe says. “A lot of that is changing to where it is gathering in some new forms of technology. So even gaming systems, like the Xbox, are being looked at as a provider of emergency alerts.”

Of course, the Xbox, televisions and the internet require electricity, which may be out. So don’t throw away that battery powered radio just yet. It’s still part of the plan.

Something else to consider is that some divisions of federal and local government simply can’t afford to add another body right now to surf the web and reply to tweets during an emergency. Later this summer, the American Red Cross says it plans to start training so-called “digital volunteers.” In a future crisis, such volunteers could support an understaffed jurisdiction upon request.

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Correspondent Tom Banse’s reporting from Japan and Mountain View, CA for this story was supported by a disaster preparedness journalism fellowship awarded by the East-West Center.