When disaster hits, many people break the news on Twitter or Facebook, often to inform loved ones that they’re okay. During a crisis, social media users take on the responsibility of communicating news, especially when they are at the scene of an emergency.
But how are these online sites — the actual forums through which people are conveying and distributing information — revolutionizing disaster response? And what others have emerged as a result?
Google Person Finder
Google’s efforts with crisis response date back to 2005. But technology’s potential to impact disaster relief hit a massive scale when Haiti’s devastating earthquake struck in January 2010. Not only did people in Haiti send text messages to alert the world about what was happening and what they needed, but Google took its role one step further by launching the Google Person Finder with the U.S. Department of State. The service helped locate loved ones who became lost in the aftermath.
Online mapping tools offer yet another way to discover and respond to a disaster. In Haiti, for example, volunteers for Open Street Map began using satellite imagery to provide daily updates of passable roads, hospitals, refugee camps and cemeteries. Combined with text messages from people on the ground, aid workers were able to localize their relief efforts much more easily and readily.
Another crowd-mapping tool that has emerged in recent years is Ushahidi, a software program and website that streamlines and maps information from a variety of communication channels, including SMS, email and Twitter. Ushahidi first emerged to map reports of violence in Kenya in the aftermath of its 2008 elections. With its free software, Crowdmap.com, anybody, anywhere can start crowd-sourcing information onto a map today. It’s how Women Under Siege Syria currently maps the region’s sexual violence during Syria’s ongoing conflict.
Like Twitter, Facebook has proven valuable for spreading and aggregating information during times of disaster. When the Haiti earthquake hit, Facebook launched a Global Disaster Relief page as a forum for people to educate themselves about the topic, and to spotlight relief efforts — a page which has since garnered over 696,000 Facebook Likes.
When tornados hit the U.S. in April 2011, Facebook users created a page on which people posted items that had been found in the rubble. That way, others might possibly find their lost possessions.
In the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Facebook became a place where travelers and ex-patriots (people who might not necessarily understand Japanese) could go for specific, local information.
Case in point: After the disaster, rolling blackouts were occurring in specific areas of Japan, and certain train lines were running intermittently, as well. A foreigner might have been able to find this information online or hear about it through a friend, but the process could be exhaustive if he didn’t understand Japanese. And the news stories coming from non-Japanese media sites tended to glance over local information — it wasn’t relevant for their audiences.
So, when people in Japan really needed to access this information, they turned to Facebook. I was living in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami, so you can imagine how grateful I was when this information box appeared on my Facebook homepage after the quake:
In February 2012, Facebook launched a disaster relief board in Japan. People can click themselves as “safe,” search for friends, and post relevant information during an emergency.
The disaster message board is only in Japan, for now. But is this something we can expect from Facebook in the future — personalized information when crisis hits? Can we expect it in all countries?
According to Frederic Wolens, Facebook spokesperson for public policy, the answer — at least for now — is no.
“We are actively iterating on the message board system, and while we don’t have any specific expansion plans at this time, we are always looking to expand our programs to benefit all our users,” he said.
And users seem to want Facebook to benefit them as well. According to findings from the Red Cross and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, respectively, 20% of the public uses Facebook as a “trusted source” of information, and online communities like Facebook may offer mental health support for people after a disaster. In fact, social media sites are the fourth most popular destination for emergency information among web users. It certainly seems plausible that the world’s largest social network has the potential to actively engage and inform people during emergencies.
What do you think when online tools are used to help people during a crisis? Would you turn to Google, social media or crowd-mapping sites in an emergency? Let us know in the comments.