Talk to Google

Posted by – August 11, 2010

Emergency and disaster response organizations working to address and harness the communication power of social media will meet in a online conference hosted by the American Red Cross (ARC). The Emergency Social Data Summit will be held Thursday, August 12, 2010, in Washington, D.C. and will bring together government agencies, emergency management professionals, disaster response organizations, tech companies and concerned citizens to discuss how to use social media in emergency response and disaster relief. The conference will be UStreamed live and will include a number of opportunities to engage over social media channels during the day. Attendees include representatives from ARC, the White House, the DoD, Facebook, Ushahidi, DHS, etc.

An ARC white paper summarizes the issues to be addressed at the Summit and provides examples of how social media can be used in disasters. The paper notes:

Creating a process and system of response for this data is crucial for one compelling reason: we are seeing more and more headlines in which people have turned to social media channels as their first choice of communication during a crisis and we, as a response and aid community, must get ahead of this trend to remain effective.

While I applaud any effort to increase the information available to first responders and disaster relief operations, I have to confess to being skeptical of the value of crowdsourced data. For example, the ARC paper quotes Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch and his comments on Twitter reports during the Mumbai terrorist attacks:

Twitter isn’t the place for solid facts yet – the situation is way too disorganized.

OK, so tweets are scooping CNN – but what is their value? My experiences as a first responder and disaster relief volunteer have taught me to ignore rumors and get someone I trust to check the facts on the ground before putting people at risk or committing resources. Citizen reporting can work, provided there is some minimal vetting and training of volunteers; a relevant example is the SkyWarn network of storm spotters that track severe weather for the National Weather Service. Untrained observers, on the other hand, typically note that ‘it looks like a war zone’, often cannot provide their location accurately, and will insist on the priority of their needs without knowledge of other needs. This is acknowledged in the ARC whitepaper:

While most experts interviewed for this paper agreed that data collection and the technological underpinnings of how it’s collected should be an open source effort, the issues of aggregating, triage and sharing of the data involves more challenges

I appreciate the effort of those researching the use of crowdsourced data and am a fan of Ushahidi, but I’d rather see the same level of effort expended on the development of easy-to-use mapping and analysis tools. These would utilize existing technologies that already are used within disaster response, they simply require some attention and server space. So talk to Google and get them to build GoogleMap mashup widgets for iGoogle to support disaster relief.

P.S. 1050.08.12.2010: From Craig Fugate’s talk at the Summit: “Don’t focus on the technology/newest gadget – focus on the outcomes it can provide.”

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