Haiti: the Importance of Social Media Use During a Disaster

Craig Fugate, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says that in big disasters the initial response is generally not the government, it is individuals helping each other, trying to find out what is going on.

Jan 19th, 2011

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00:01In these really big disasters, the initial response is generally not government.

00:09It's individuals helping each other, trying to find out what's going on.

00:14And I think one of our mental blocks have been that in a disaster of this magnitude, there is no calm.

00:22How many people dealt with Haiti in support or response to that?

00:25We're seeing now that, in the wireless world, the ability for those providers to get up and running...

00:33...is actually greater than it was in many of our experiences in previous disasters in the U.S.

00:39We had people on the ground the day after Haiti that, as they hit the ground, could do text messaging.

00:43Right, Dan? That's right.

00:45We actually had people get there, and we chipped our phones just in case there was any cellular communication...

00:51...and they got there and they didn't have a lot of voice at first, but they had text.

00:55So they were starting to text message.

00:57And it turns out, in Haiti that's how a lot of people communicate.

00:59They've got a lot more cell phones there than they have radios.

01:03And so we're going into one of the worst earthquakes in the Western Hemisphere, and they've got connectivity.

01:11And all of a sudden, you started getting things we'd never seen before...

01:14...and that was people trying to text, social media, e-mail, "I'm stuck. I'm trapped. I need help."

01:25And from the standpoint of this information coming up that these devices know where they're at...

01:33...and that people were using them to ask for help in a system that was devastated.

01:39There was no centralized government, there was no 911 analog that could be stood up.

01:46And people started realizing that, hey, this person may not be able to tell us where [they're] at...

01:54...but we can go back to the cell company and triangulate where this phone was at...

01:58...and get a base location of where they're probably at.

02:03All right? But we need to get this to a team. Well, who are the teams out there? What's the structure?

02:07You've got to remember, in Haiti, the UN governing structure, their building was destroyed...

02:12...so we were standing up a lot of things and moving a lot of things in...

02:15...without necessarily having a predetermined organization to respond.

02:21You got volunteers across a variety of technology companies and people that had a concern about helping...

02:28...quickly putting together the ability to match this location, this call for help, to the teams that were doing search and rescue...

02:36...and get them that information.

02:38And then as do...people were out there, like OpenStreetMap.

02:41I mean, literally trying to get good basemaps of Haiti was being developed on the fly.

02:46And taking that information and taking these phones, a response began to the point where, as this continued to evolve...

02:55...through the leadership of USAID, Raj Shah and his folks, State Department, and the UN...

03:01...they actually set up where they were four-digit text coding for the Haitians to be able to pass information...

03:05...about needs for food, shelter, medical, and getting that into the UN system of which organizations could provide that.

03:12And this all stood up in an environment that most of us, our preconceived notion was there would not be connectivity...

03:20...most of the tools that we had developed here in the U.S. would have no application...

03:24...and yet we found something entirely different.

03:26The technology actually, because of that connectivity, gave us some capabilities we hadn't even tried in the U.S.

03:34I mean, think about it. Tell me anybody in this room that's prepared to set up a short text code messaging...

03:41...to take information from the public and plug that into a response and get that out to teams to get out to do search and rescue.

03:48And yet it happened in Haiti. It was not even preplanned.

03:53And so these are the kind of things that started making us think a little bit differently...

03:58...and that is the public oftentimes has better information and situational awareness in an area of a disaster...

04:08...than any of the teams in response that are coming from the outside.

04:13But we kind of have this barrier, because the public isn't official.

04:21It's not an official source of information.

04:24The other thing is, we're not really sure how to do this because we've got a lot of phobias about privacy...

04:30...and how we interact with the public and all of this stuff.

04:34But we've seen now in the U.S., from wildfires in California and Boulder to the recent ice storm and snowstorms...

04:42...the public is putting out better situational awareness than many of our own agencies can with our official datasets.

04:51And so one of the things that we were talking with Jack about was wouldn't it be really cool...

04:55...if we could start bringing in social media that was geographically tagged as a data layer and start going...

05:03...Here's what the public says is going on, and here's what we think's going on...

05:07...and yeah, they match up pretty good, or we got some holes here.

05:13I think the reason we were always reluctant to do this...

05:15...we didn't think there would be enough communication up after a disaster to make that happen.

05:19But Haiti's changed that.

05:21It's really got us thinking again about how do we use our tools and carry on these two-way conversations...

05:29...with people in a disaster environment?

05:31Not necessarily a one-on-one conversation, but a conversation that says, If you've got information...

05:38...can I map it, tag it, and look at it in relationship to my other data?

05:43And again, I run into this. "Well, it's not official data," or "People will give us bad information."

05:52If you've watched any of these mashups, have you ever seen people post bad information...

05:55...and then how quickly they get pounced on by the people that are correcting it? The crowdsourcing's faster.

06:02Then again, I like the official sources. "Well, we can only use official sources."

06:05Does anybody that's been...in this room that you got official source information that was dead wrong...

06:09...but it stayed in the system for days?

06:12The thing about crowdsourcing, it's interesting because when people try to post bad information intentionally...

06:18...it's just like a tsunami; they just get swamped and drowned.

06:23Here's my analogy. If I know there's wildfires in Boulder Canyon and somebody's shooting me...

06:28...Flickr or YouTube or whatever of their house burning down, and it kind of corresponds where the fire lines are...

06:34...that might be a little bit more than hearsay. It might actually be some good information.

06:39But how do you use it? So this is where we want to go.

06:43First of all, for those of you that sit with the two huge monitors, this is what you've got to build for.

06:53It's a mobile world out there.

06:55This is how the public's using and getting their information...

06:58...and that's how more and more of us in the field are going to be doing it.

07:00It's going to be mobile. It's going to provide...

07:04Again, these are data sensors, and you've already seen some of the applications.

07:07Some of you are already doing some pretty cool stuff now with these apps that can then do these single-purpose things very well...

07:14...that allow your staff to go out with much less equipment, overhead, and training requirements we used to have...

07:19...and get really good-quality products to feed into our systems.

07:23And think about it in a disaster; I'm looking at speed.

07:27You know, sometimes people want a higher degree of precision or accuracy, but it's not really going to change my decision...

07:32...so I can go with a lower grade of data, but I need information.

07:35I need to know what's going on because if I'm waiting to make those decisions, I won't have time.

07:41And so we want to look at, from our standpoint, how do we put more emphasis on the dynamic information...

07:48...that we produce in the federal family that would be relevant both to local, state, federal responders...

07:55...volunteer groups, private sector but also the public.

08:00And then how do we pull information from those organizations, those groups, and those individuals...

08:06...and produce this common operating picture that is not what I would say is what we've been building...

08:11...which is a government-centric data system.

08:15Because when a disaster happens, it's not government; it's the community that got hit...

08:22...and that community is going to be putting information out whether you like it or not.

08:26And this is the other thing that we have to deal with.

08:29A lot of people would like to take social media and go, It's a fad or it's like an extension of public information.

08:36But let me ask you this. How many of you have a mandate or are working towards a mandate...

08:41...that says you need to be able to communicate and share your information with the general public?

08:48But then you want them to fit your model, and then you can't understand why people get frustrated with us.

08:55Government has to change that mentality that we have a system.

09:00Love it or hate it, you're going to have to make yourselves adapt to us.

09:04I want to change that. I'm like, we have to adapt to what the public's doing.

09:08We have to use what the public's using to communicate. We have to think about people now.

09:12How many people know somebody that right now has a smartphone that they don't make phone calls on it...

09:18...they don't use it for e-mail; all they do is they update their social media, and that's the only way they communicate?

09:27And so if you're not looking at those kind of things, I think, one, you're going to get left behind...

09:33...and, two, you're going to have a demand for this information that we can't meet.

09:39In an environment that says fewer resources, less time, and in my world, in a disaster...

09:47...a reality that a government-centric approach to solving disaster problems will fail in a catastrophic disaster.

09:56It is a brittle system that does not have the resiliency that we have when we can incorporate the rest of the team...

10:04...the public, the volunteers and NGOs, and the private sector.

10:09But how do you do that? We think it's providing the data feeds and using GIS viewers as a common operating picture.

Copyright 2014 Esri
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