I expect to hear a lot of stories about social technology keeping people connected in the aftermath of Sandy — just as after Katrina. However, I am also expecting these stories to take a twist — we will hear about how neighbors organized self-relief efforts using social media.
Social media has been playing a part in disaster recovery for some time now. After Katrina, we were able to find out if our family and friends were okay by looking on websites where the names of contacted survivors were posted. During the 9/11 attacks, even as voice communications failed, SMS texting which requires limited bandwidth worked. Companies have been using social media for some time to connect with employees before, during and after natural disasters.
But newer social technologies change the game from one to many and one to one, to one among many to many, and many to many.
The self-organization enabled by social media can be very powerful in recovery. It’s this type of self-organization that enabled people to rescue each other after the flooding in Russia earlier this year, when the authorities were incompetent.
Not that our emergency management authorities are incompetent – they are excellent, frankly. But I wonder how Katrina might have shaped up differently if people had wide use of twitter then.
If emergency managers wanted to take full advantage of social tech after a storm, then they’d prioritize the restoration of cellular communications, wouldn’t they. Perhaps even enable CERT volunteers with the social technology training to organize neighborhood relief.
Think about a flash mob of chainsaws to clear a street of trees. Or to organize a neighborhood flotilla of canoes and jon boats to bring supplies to stranded families. This type of thing is happening lately after disasters, and emergency managers should begin to take advantage of it.
Of course this can be dangerous – downed power lines, burning buildings, and flooding are dangerous for the untrained. Regardless, really good relief efforts are empowering systems – they are not managed from the top – logistics are, but the relief itself is a true many to many people-engagement exercise.
In the Queensland 2011 flooding the emergency management authorities had just a month before established a pilot social media program — the results were phenomenal. Social technology has already proven its value in disasters – even in Katrina when it was in its infancy – and now it is coming of age.
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