Red Cross Builds a Framework for Crisis Response in the 21st Century

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ARC Summit

Photo by Shashi Bellamkonda

One of the things that we love to hear from our clients at Zoetica is clarity of vision. This is exactly what happened early last summer when Wendy Harmon , who heads up the social media effort for the American Red Cross, came to us with an opportunity to make a difference. She had been personally convinced during some experiences she had during the Haitian earthquake in early 2010, of the irreversible trend that people in crisis situations would increasingly use mobile updates to their social networks to articulate their immediate needs and requests.

Moreover, early crisis response research indicated that there was a gap between the ability of responders to effectively use crisis data. A crisis response survey conducted by the American Red Cross showed that 69 percent of Americans said that emergency responders should be monitoring social media sites in order to quickly send help—and nearly half believe a response agency is probably already responding to any urgent request they might see. Moreover, 74 percent expected help to come less than an hour after their tweet or Facebook post asking for help.

Bridging the Gap

Currently there is no widespread or standard process or technology identified to facilitate sharing and validating this data in real time. Harman realized that there was an urgent need to start building a framework for the entire emergency response spectrum to better work together to address this new reality. Some early progress was already underway with platforms like Ushahidi’s ( open source crowdsourcing tools and the early successes of  CrisisCommons, which brings technology wizards together through its CrisisCamps to build out solutions during crisis. However, there has been little coordination with these grassroots efforts, first responders, NGOs and government.

In order to start to bridge this gap, Zoetica worked with the American Red Cross to convene a high-level, broad-based conference in Washington, D.C. on August 12, 2010, exactly seven months after the Haitian earthquake. The conference included the technology sector, government, nonprofits, first responders, media and the public. Simultaneously, the general public was invited to participate in a virtual town hall that was supported by streaming video of the live speakers, live tweeting throughout the day, and in a solutions-focused chat on Twitter using the #crisisdata hashtag and hosted by NTEN Executive Director Holly Ross and former Red Crosser, Ike Pigott.

Crowdsourcing for Good


Jack Holt at CrisisData Summit

Photo: Jack Holt, Senior Strategist for Emerging Media DoD by Shashi Bellamkonda

In advance of this event, Zoetica worked with the Red Cross to build out a number of digital channels and resources to support the work of the conferees. The first piece was the expectations gap survey, followed by a situational white paper. We also put a conference blog in place, since this was a much broader crowdsourced effort. We also built out a page on the Red Cross blog with all of the information, as well as a The CrisisData Wiki where all the conference assets would be shared and where attendees would be invited to co-create information around how to address crisis data. All of this was driven through the Red Cross social channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, Scrib’d and others.

The August event was attended in person by approximately 160 high-level government representatives, media, social media, tech, non-profit organizations and local responders who are impacted by the dilemma of emergency social data and its use. Online there were over 1,000 participants in the #crisisdata chat.

The Path Forward Recognized

Finally, we followed up with a document, “The Path Forward,” to lay out a possible path toward a long-term solution. This document, which will be released the week of September 13, synthesizes the main ideas from the event and the live town hall. It includes recommendations for working groups in five areas to help support a the building of a framework for response to crisis data: Public Awareness and Education, Next Generation of Emergency Management Tools, Collaboration, Processes, Governance Citizen Helping Citizen, and Overcoming Barriers to Access.

Already, the connections from the conference are paying off as attendees have banded together to tag homes that were burned down in the Boulder Canyon Fire ( and collaborative conversations on Twitter with the #crisisdata hashtag continue to this day.

The American Red Cross, along with Zoetica, were recently awarded the Society for New Communications Research  2010 Excellence in New Communications Award in the NonProfit Division, Collaboration & Co-creation Category, for this program. The awards honor individuals and organizations that are pioneering the use of social media and Internet communications technologies (ICT) in business, media, nonprofits/NGOs, education, government, and technology.

Crisis Data Resources

· Web Users Increasingly Rely on Social Media to Seek Help in a Disaster

· C-SPAN Video Library of the Emergency Social Data Summit

· Emergency Social Data Summit Blog

· White Paper: The Case for Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media

· The Path Forward: A  call to action for the disaster response community

· Crisis Data Posterous Blog

· American Red Cross blog

· Crisis Data Wiki


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