I have a personal connection to Joplin, MO, where an F5 tornado ripped through a crowded residential and business zone on Sunday, May 22, 2011. My Mom lives there, and was extremely blessed to have been just missed by the killer tornado by a few blocks. Additionally, through the work that Zoetica did with the Red Cross on the CrisisData Summit, it is clear that people need more education about how to use communication channels effectively in a crisis like this one.
This post is a primer for individuals and organizations that find themselves in a crisis situation and want to have a quick guide on the effective use of social media in a crisis.
1. Using Text Messaging
It is well documented that after most widespread disasters, or terrorist attacks, cellphone service, Internet and even power are usually disrupted for long periods of time. The demand placed on a damaged system usually proves to be too much.
While not fail proof, it seems that texting, or SMS, usually works where voice doesn’t.
Usually, if you have a charged phone with no outgoing or incoming voice service, you can usually get in touch with text messages. There have been many examples during the Joplin tornadoes, and in other tragedies, of survivors reaching out through text messaging. Kerry Sachetta, principal of Joplin High School, said in an interview on NPR, “Facebook and social networking and text messaging has been a big help to get a hold of students. You know, coaches, sponsors that talk to their kids through text message to make sure that they know how to get to practice or games or whatever has been a big help.”
TIP: Keep electronic devices charged using a car charger, or travel to a nearby (unaffected) town for the day and use an outlet at a restaurant.
Also, most social networks have a method to post updates using SMS text. This allows savvy survivors a way to update family in friends in mass about their whereabouts and status (I did this during Hurricane Ike for my family using SMS to Twitter).
On a more broad basis, organizations that are helping with recovery are successfully deploying “text to give” campaigns to raise the funds to assist with the response effort.
2. Using Facebook to Get in Touch
If you have the connectivity, and can update your status on your social channels, it can be very comforting for friends and family. Even if you don’t have Internet, you can sometimes use SMS texting to update. However, may need to set this up before a disaster hits (for those of you not currently in a disaster, do this now). If you use social networks on a regular basis, you should install the appropriate applications (if you have a smart phone) or manually set SMS capabilities in your settings for Twitter and Facebook (click for directions).
3. Using Facebook to Find Missing Persons
|Lantz Hare’s Page
|Will Norton’s Page
Several families in Joplin have started to use Facebook as a platform to aggregate tips and information about their missing loved ones. Most notable have been the search for Skyular Logsdon, Will Norton and Lantz Hare (click below to see these pages in action or on the names in this sentence to get the stories about each of these people). Additionally, the local newspaper, the Joplin Globe, put up the Joplin, Mo. Tornado Survivors Facebook page to help people locate specific people and addresses that were affected.
The problem with such “search and information” pages is that they usually cause a lot of unnecessary emotional distress for the family and they are much less efficient than you might think.
4. Challenges of Facebook and Twitter in Disasters
- Unstable and Sick Individuals: When a horrible tragedy is underway, it tends to bring out people that are unstable or pranksters that use the page to tell horrible jokes or make false (and sometimes very hurtful) statements. The goal is usually to get attention for themselves.
- Volume of Information: These types of pages also bring out people that just want to lend their verbal support to the family with thoughts and prayers. This onslaught of and support, while a wonderful outpouring, can become overwhelming for the family. Not only that, but Facebook has no good way to organize incoming information, or to tag important stuff to read later. You have to go page by page and wade through an avalanche of data. Facebook was just not designed for this kind of info and archiving.
- Irrelevant Information: Along with the well-wishers, there are those that add “helpful tips” that honestly are irrelevant. Additionally, unverified leads and false rumors (which are often hearsay, or even made up) are mixed in with possibly helpful information and there is no way to tell the difference between the two.
These are significant problems with both Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, which usually use hashtags (such as #crisisdata) to aggregate information.
So does this mean you shouldn’t use social media to search for missing people?
I think that it can be done. But it requires some work. Facebook is a tool, and it can be modified somewhat to be more efficient. Somewhere late in the second day, the administrator of the Help Find Will Norton used the settings in Facebook to bring some sanity to the page.
5. Crisis Settings For Your Facebook Page
The key is to restrict fans of the page from posting directly on the wall. Under the Manage Permissions area you can take three steps to make the flow of information more manageable. You will still need someone actively monitoring the page at all times, but it goes from being impossible to being difficult, but doable.
- Limit Wall Posts to Admin: On the Wall Tab Shows drop down box, choose “Only Posts by Page.” This setting will allow only the posts by the admin to show on the main page. In this way, people can react to the posts by the admin, but they can’t clutter the main page with irrelevant messages.
- Unclick the Expand comments or stories box: Posts that have double to triple digit comments (which easily happens when you have thousands of followers), the comments can take up quite a bit of the page. You can experiment with this option, but once you have lots of comments coming in, it is better to turn it off.
- Turn off posting ability for fans. Even when you turn this off, fans can still comment on what you post on the wall, they just can’t add content of their own. Again, you might want to experiment with this, but when the comments are coming in at 4-5 per second, this helps a lot to keep it under control.
6. Making Contact with Other Survivors
After a disaster, when you find you are Safe and Well, the natural tendency is to want to find friends, family or help your community in some way. Be sure that you are dressed appropriately for the task in shorts, t-shirts and tennis shoes or work boots, if you have them. Also, don’t go out into what amounts to a war zone without heavy gloves, a first aid kit, some water, and a buddy. Never head out alone, or you might become a victim. Also, you might want to check in with any Red Cross shelters, as they often can use volunteers to help with operations after they train you. Be patient because it often takes a while for ongoing operations to incorporate new, untrained volunteers.
Here are some ways to communicate with others in your area and with family and friends out of the area:
- Leave a Note: After the storm was over, my mother in Joplin was concerned about the fate of her dear friends Granny and Papa Green. She got a buddy and walked six blocks through the disaster zone to their totally demolished house to make sure they were okay. When she got there, she found a handwritten note, on a piece of debris that read: “Green’s Okay, 417-000-0000.” Sometimes the simple approach is the most elegant.
- Twitter Hashtags: If you use Twitter, it pays to determine what hashtag is being used by people in the area to exchange information. During the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, and also during the storm itself, tracking this hashtag gave me the important links I needed to stay on top of weather reports, storm information, and later water distribution points and shelter locations. It also helps survivors communicate with each other, which is comforting. In the recent tornado they used the hashtag #joplin and someone aggregated these tweets on a map powered by the visualization software Ushahidi.
- Register Yourself on Safe and Well: If you are a survivor, you can often register yourself at a Red Cross shelter, and people with either your phone number or address can look in the database to get information about you.
- Register Someone Else Safe and Well : Also, if you have been in touch with a relative or friend outside the area, you can ask one of them to do the registration at the Red Cross Safe and Well site for you. They will need direct information about the person’s whereabouts and have that person’s full name, address and phone number, as well as the address of their new location (would have like to see a temporary phone number field).
7. Crowdsourcing Crisis Response in Facebook
Facebook can be great organizing tool, but you have to use it surgically.
Once you have asked people to help you crowdsource a solution, in this case calling hundreds of hospitals around the region to see if they have a John Doe, it is very hard to get them to stop. Unfortunately, this led to some hospitals being called multiple times by people asking the same questions. It finally prompted the administrators of the Facebook search pages to ask people to STOP calling to no avail.
It is much better to recruit a small team (you can use the page to get these people) and move your action communication out of the public space. So, if you need 10 people to help you call 100 hospitals, just ask for volunteers to help with some calling (don’t specify exactly who), then move this group into a direct message thread or start a private group to work on the requests. Private groups are nice, because if you get a troll or bad apple, you can easily boot them out.