Monday, February 21, 2011

The Role of Social Media in the Aftermath of Disasters, Help or Hindrance?

Recently, FEMA Administrator Fugate recommended on Twitter that his followers read an Executive Summary for the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s U.S. National Grid (USNG) standard. The USNG “provides a nationally consistent language of location that has been optimized for local applications.” 
Without yet understanding the importance of this standard, the current collection of social media interfaces presents in times of crisis one means of communicating needs, organizing locally and requesting help from responders coming from many miles away but is still lacking. Social media can be of great help but have the potential of also becoming something of a impediment to any response enterprise while at the same time greatly expanding the expectations of a population who have come to believe that because something has been tweeted, therefore it is.
It isn’t.
In early 2006, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast of the USA, Mr. Scott Simon of National Public Radio introduced an excellent report which illustrates a persistent problem and the solution:  “How would you tell a stranger right now exactly where you are in the world? What if your life or somebody's life depends on the directions you give? When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, search and rescue teams discovered that they lacked a common language for explaining where they were or where people needed help. There are mapping systems that can make rescue and response easier if Americans are willing to use them.” (New Kind of Map Could Help Emergency Response, by Dan Charles)
As we’ve seen in the case of the recent revolution in Egypt, initiated and to some extent coordinated via Facebook, Twitter, and Google, there is a great inherent power to social media technologies. However, that “power” can become somewhat feckless and ineffective when potentially many tens of thousands of messages an hour are sent in a disaster response scenario, especially if the messaging is lacking even the basics of standardized content. If one were to pick just one critical element of information to normalize, it should be for the locations of people, places, and things.
Unlike the situation in Egypt, those needing help in a disaster scenario who are tweeting their needs actually want the government to see, comprehend, and act with accuracy, speed, and precision on the information provided in order to help disaster survivors when, where, and with whatever is needed.
After a catastrophic disaster strikes, “the Army” will be looked upon in most countries as a force of extreme good by the average citizen and become one of their best hopes for help and protection when many other forms of a government’s residual capabilities to respond, provision, and protect are lessened or eliminated entirely.
There are many excellent reasons learned through the years why the United States military, all NATO forces, plus Japan and other nations utilize a standard grid reference language of location when it comes to those working on the ground, the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) which is similar to and interoperable with USNG.
In a USA context, although certainly the same issue exists everywhere, if all search and rescue teams, the Coast Guard, National Guard, and other response assets coming to help you and your Facebook family are utilizing USNG, would it not be advantageous for Facebook to do so as well?
If a message for help does include a USNG geoaddress, in this case a ten meter precision and earth unique position of  18S UJ 0044 9732” that is both easy to communicate by voice and transcribe for use in planning on-the-ground operations, what help is it for that geoaddress to be turned by Google into one of the several difficult to communicate and keep straight variants of latitude and longitude: “39.70242141676143,-77.32767916127594?”
According to Twitter, it “is, without a doubt, the best way to share and discover what is happening right now.” That may in part well be true. In the long-run, however, for both every day uses and in the aftermath of an emergency or disaster when time counts and minutes lost can be the balance between life and death,  Twitter and all other Social Media interfaces and mapping portals alike, could be much better.

Courtsey of:
Mark A. Whitney
Emmitsburg, MD

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