Role of Social Media, Crowdsourcing and Mobile in Disaster Response

Fantastic conversation on C-SPAN discussing the role of social media, crowdsourcing and mobile in disaster response. Here is an excerpt from Craig Fugate, the administrator at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stressing the importance of government to adapt to using these new technologies and viewing the public as participants, not only recipients of information:

“When we talk about social media, we need to understand that it is another tool in our toolbox, but it is by no means the only way by which we need to communicate with the public, both in warning, alerting situations, as well as communicating with them.

But I think social media offers a new challenge to us. Previously we had the ability to communicate ‘at the public’, whether it is radio, tv, webpages, even billboards, etc. But our ability to communicate with the public to have two-way conversations, has always been limited. As we have seen with numerous disasters in recent years, we often have taken the approach in government at creating systems that people have to adapt to on how we communicate. We don’t always adapt to how they are communicating.

And as we have begun to see people using these tools differently, in fact everything in which we call ‘social media’ was never designed with disasters in mind, but they became increasingly tools how people were communicating day to day, and sharing information with family and loved ones, that began providing a role in a disaster in ways for us in government, we didn’t innovate this, we didn’t create this, we didn’t direct it, but we began observing it. And I think for us at Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as my peers at state and local levels, and volunteer agencies that are involved in disaster response, we began to see a whole new group volunteers emerge, with skill sets on being able to apply this technology in realtime situations, without necessarily a direction from a central location, but rather a term that is often used of ‘crowdsourcing’. People working on similar problems, sharing information, often times getting to better solutions.

Mr. Chairman, its caused me to realize, that social media, and particularly volunteers in groups that are involve with this, let me put it this way, we need to innovate faster than the speed of government, and they are doing it. So instead of trying to make systems fit us, make the public fit how we communicate, we at FEMA are trying to meet that need and figure out how to apply this. When someone says, Craig, whats the performance matrix, whats the measurement of success, how are you doing this; I would say, we are still experimenting, we are really still just trying to understand how these tools can be applied. Mr. Chairman, most of these times we come to these meetings and the first thing you do is turn off your cellphone, hide them out of sight, but I’m gonna bring my out, because here’s what I want to communicate in the short time I have.

In most disasters, when you are displaced from your home, you no longer have access to your computer, you may not have wifi access, but in many disasters like being on the ground in Haiti, we had folks there within a day of the earthquake…the one thing that was working were mobile devices. And it is this that I think we at the Federal Government need to understand that we are moving more and more away from a web-based capacity to a mobile environment.

So one of the things we did at FEMA was to start moving our information into mobile formats. We have a mobile webpage,, because when you are a disaster survivor you don’t need pretty pictures, you don’t need our or-chart, and you certainly don’t need information on all of our programs. You need information that will be low bandwidth, that you can get it to a phone, and get things you need. We designed our registration so you can access it by your smartphone. But we are also learning that the public has tremedous information in disaster areas, that often times we have taken the approach that it was not official or not useable because it did not come from traditional forms of communication.

Mr Chairman, I would suggest we should look at these [devices] as data points, sensors. That individually may not provide us with the best information, but collectively are often the earliest and best reports of the severity of the impact and telling us stories faster than any assessment team or any ability to get into an area. We seen this is Haiti, we saw this in Japan, in Christchurch and even with the tornadoes across the south; pictures, stories, updates giving us information.

I think we need to take the approach at the Federal Government, that the public is a resource, not a liability and learn how to listen, but we also need to recognize we are in a mobile environment. And the Federal Government needs to develop the data to support our citizens in a way that they can use in a disaster, rather than making them fit into our traditional models.” – Craig Fugate, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

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