Social medial tools have become a part of our lives; as citizens, emergency responders and researchers. Lessons and best practices learnt from disasters and emergency situations globally in recent times have shown that social media platforms can serve as a vital and integral component of crisis response. Communication is an essential tool of emergency management.
It becomes especially important when there are several departments and agencies responding to a disaster. In such situations, it is common for formal communication networks to be overloaded as thousands upon thousands of people try to access information.
Social scientists say that the active participation of the public that is usually witnessed when a disaster has occurred is driven largely by altruism and a genuine desire to help. Social media therefore provides an opportunity for engaging the public in emergency response by dissemination information to people and also by accessing information from them. When a calamity strikes, the public is exposed to copious amounts of information without being certain of their validity or risk of misinformation. However, users are usually quick to correct them, hence making social media a self-regulating platform. Here are ways that social media can help us to improve disaster response
Effective disaster management
A well-organized response to a crisis helps in mitigating deaths and damage to infrastructure. The response will typically include staffing, strategy and relationships between various relief and rescue organizations and the social environment itself.
The sharing and coordination of information therefore becomes integral among the responding organizations. When information flows through the established command structure, informal and personal-basis channels are formed to support multi-level information sharing. In this model of disaster management, the focal authority or the incident commander who is responsible for coordinating all the organizations that are involved makes sure that there is a coherent flow of instructions and information.
Situational awareness therefore becomes very important. Situational awareness reports often emanate from local residents, reporters and the general public, and social media makes it possible to a package’ this information to the responding organizations. Natural disasters usually trigger many other emergencies such as fires and the collapse of buildings, and social media acts as an informal mapping tool to pinpoint what is happening at a given time. The incident commander and the response nerve center will therefore have an easier task of mining this wealth of information in real time and sharing it with the departments involved in the response and management of a given disaster.
Mobilizing the public for auxiliary help
As mentioned earlier, good communication is critical when it comes to disaster management. However, this communication can be affected especially when the disaster is very severe. Some natural disasters such as earthquakes can completely annihilate the communication infrastructure of a town. Landlines are rendered useless and power transmission destroyed. Communication therefore becomes hindered which in turn hampers response and rescue efforts.
Research has shown that formal communication systems usually collapse when a massive natural disaster strikes and communication devices are not able to function effectively. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter can help to plug this information gap by keeping the public informed of ongoing disaster management efforts as well as situations and areas that they should avoid. In the absence of formal communication channels, the response organizations as well as the public can take advantage of the continuous stream of information emanating from social media channels to better mobilize in order to mitigate the loss of life and property. There are areas where journalists cannot reach in good time, but the there are always people in such places using social media to update the world of what is going on. This makes disaster response to flow smoothly in the interim as authorities scramble up more resources and machinery.
Solving communication challenges
When a natural disaster occurs, people naturally want to know more about what happened as well as what is happening in the present. Studies have shown that the most common and familiar channels that people turn to in such situations are phone calls, text messages and emails. If they are not successful, they turn to alternative sources of information. People will turn to any means available to find information on the whereabouts of their loved ones and friends so as to reduce uncertainty which usually breeds anxiety. They will look in the newspapers, television, radio as well as the internet.
News aggregators and journalists collect information from various social networks and verify it before releasing it to the public. There is a need for information to be disseminated quickly in a simplified form to reduce anxiety in the public domain. Social media acts as a continuous source of information, both to the public and to news outlets, which helps to plug the gaps in communication.
It is not only the public that are in need of information when a disaster strikes. Those directly affected usually have the internet and social media as the only source of information on what they can do to keep surviving. There are countless situations in modern times when those affected or injured in a natural disaster use social media to communicate to their friends and the public, who in turn alert the response teams. Documented accounts of people trapped by wild fires, hurricanes, floods or even earthquakes turning to social media to request for help are many, and such human stories usually go viral around the world. In such dark times, social media can be a great source of encouragement and the affected victims can draw strength from the well-wishes of people around the world to keep surviving; and to keep hoping.
To improve the quality of information drawn from social media during emergencies, responders can team with computer scientists to develop algorithms which mine, collect and analyze data very fast so as to come up with information which has the requisite markers. The advantage is that social media itself classifies and sorts information that is being disseminated, making analysis and simplification an easier task. Since natural disasters are happening almost daily around the world, we should look at more ways in which we can use social media to make disaster response and management more effective.