In Brief: Social Media and Disasters

Posted: April 18, 2012 by Steven Forrest in Development, Disaster, Disaster Risk Reduction
Tags: , , , , ,

Thanks to the internet, communication between people has become easier than ever. We can now share information quickly and easily with a large global audience or a few specific people through ‘social media’. Examples of such ‘interactive dialogues’ include community-generated materials (e.g. Wikipedia), blogging sites and social networking sites.

So what has social media got to do with disasters? Well, social media is not always associated with disasters, however, we are beginning to see some innovative examples of its use. These include the incorporation of social media into the disaster arena to aid in disaster risk reduction (DRR), act as an early warning system, as well as its use to raise public awareness of ongoing disaster situations and even comfort family and friends.

After the 2009 Typhoon Ondoy, the Philippines launched a community-generated flood map. This online resource encouraged residents of the affected areas to report localised flooding. It recorded the time of the report and allowed over 600 residents to rank the extent of the flooding on a scale from “No flood” to “2 storeys or higher”. DRR experts and local emergency planners can now use this data to inform policy decisions on protective flood barriers. The map also provides an easily accessible legacy of the flood event and will remind people of the risks that they face. Over 51,000 people have already viewed the map online.

The Community Created Flood Map

The ‘Masters of Disasters’ blog site itself is designed to raise awareness of disasters, adaptation and development. Similar blogs are able to warn of potential disasters, garner support for current crises and improve public awareness of current development projects. Twitter, a microblogging site, has several profiles that provide global disaster alerts, with the potential for this to be expanded into early warning systems at a smaller, more localised scale.

The popular social networking site Facebook has recently installed an “I’m Safe” button. The button appears on a person’s Facebook page when a disaster strikes in the country that they are currently in. Once selected, it tells your family and friends that you are safe, allows you to tag other friends who are with you, and provides your current location. Whilst it has only recently been released, this real-time information could lead to more targeted search and rescue responses focusing on those known to be missing. It is a specific function of Facebook and requires only a small period of internet connectivity to activate (which is all that you may have in the aftermath of a disaster).

However, the use of these social media tools is restricted to regions with internet access. People in developed countries such as Japan will be able to take advantage of these tools, but people in rural areas of developing countries will be unlikely to have accessible internet connections. In these developing countries it is mainly the middle classes who have internet access and so those most at-risk in rural areas will have to rely on other technologies such as mobile phones and radio broadcasts. Verification issues over the authenticity of public reports for community projects, such as the online flood map, need to be resolved to make this a more reliable tool.

Social media supplies both emergency planners and disaster risk reduction experts with a range of tools to accomplish their goals. ‘Community’ mapping, as seen in the Philippines, can help to maintain public awareness of hazards that affect them. The combination of Smartphone applications, 3G networks and the increasing ownership of mobile phones in the developing world may also facilitate the use of social media tools. If 3G coverage were to be increased or set up in at-risk locations, and Smartphones provided by NGOs, then social media just may become the latest addition to every emergency planner and disaster risk reduction expert’s toolkit.

  1. Mark Pelling says:

    Still under studies and undr utilised there is huge potenital for social media in providing a parallel reporting architacture to the news media/humanitarian NGO/local government lines of disaster event and loss reporting. There are challenges of quality of course, but as the map provided in this blog shows where the responses are high volume individual errors can be identified much as extremes are cleaned from statistical datasets. The UK Forsight prpogramme is currently revbiewing disaster risk and resileince and includes a work package on social media. Look for lots of activity in this area of research and policy.

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