social networking in disaster optimization

I attended the Health and Humanitarian Logistics conference last week.  The conference was great, and I was pleasantly surprised that most of the speakers and attendees were from NGOs, government, and private industry. This provided a great opportunity for practical, interdisciplinary discussions.

Although there were many excellent talks, I am going to highlight one particular talk from the conference that addressed the use of social media in humanitarian response.

Mark Keim, MD, from the CDC talked about how social networking changed the response to the Haiti earthquake compared to earlier disasters.  Compared to traditional, hierarchical networks, the peer to peer network is individual (instead of organized), public (as opposed to institutional), immediate (instead of delayed), dynamic (instead of static), and much more adaptive and scalable (compared toa hierarchical network).  Peer to peer networks offer advantages as well as challenges during a disaster.

Keim  summarized some of the differences he noticed during the Haiti response:

There were several million tweets about Haiti within 48 hours of the earthquake.  They started within minutes.  This provided immediate information, which was crucial since it took the response teams much longer to get to Haiti (we didn’t have to wait days to hear updates from Haiti).

The Red Cross raised $25M via text message (this article claims $35M within 48 hours).  The instructions were spread throughout FaceBook, twitter, and other social networking tools.

Blogs, twitter, and youtube increased Haiti coverage when coverage decreased on news networks and sites (about 11 days after the disaster), illustrated by Jan 23 on the google trends figure below.  This illustrated a metaphorical hand off from the news sites to individuals after the disaster.

Google trend search volume as a function of time, January 2010

Google trend search volume as a function of time, January 2010

During the disaster, Keim’s team noticed that a map of the shelters was posted online by a presumably unknown user (this is an example, but not the one in the talk).  It was wonderful that someone adapted to provide this information, but could it be trusted to allocate resources?  Social networking provides more information (and the information that is typically needed in the moment), but credibility remains a large issue.  However, one attendant noted that the so-called credible information (e.g., from government agencies) is often biased and inaccurate, which isn’t really a better alternative.

I know that I blogged about Haiti.  How did you use social media in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake?

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5 responses to “social networking in disaster optimization

  • Michael Keizer

    As I am maintaining a blog entirely devoted about logistics for global health and aid, I obviously wrote about Haiti as well. But, I must say here, at first I was not planning to and only after a number of not-so-subtle hints from colleagues, fellow bloggers, and regular reader, did I write my first article about the logistics aftermath of the quake. Why? Because I think that Haiti is not the watershed that many people seem to think it was. Social networking was already widely used in disaster response logistics, only in less visible ways: face-to-face and person to person, in physical meetings, phone, Skype, and email conversations, on old-fashioned bulletin-board like fora, in meetings, on explo trips, and in many other ways.

    Twitter and its ilk are very helpful and can facilitate social networking, but they are just tools, not the networks themselves. For some reason, any time people talk about ‘social networks’, it is equated with Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Google Buzz, or whichever tool is closest to the speaker’s heart; but that is as false an equation as it is to confuse the car with the road trip.

    The tools definitely facilitate some aspects of social networking, but they also make some aspects more difficult: the signal-to-noise is much more difficult to control or even to verify, and the sheer volume can easily overwhelm any possibility of analysis. Like any tool, it needs to be mastered, lest it masters us.

  • Laura

    Michael, thank you for your comments and to the link to your blog–it was quite informative. I would be surprised if Haiti was widel considered the watershed, since social networking has been on the rise for some time. I would be interested in hearing more about how the signal-to-noise ratio can be mastered.

  • Michael Keizer

    I would be surprised if Haiti was widel considered the watershed
    Many people seem to think it is; see e.g. Mark Keim’s quote in the main article: “… social networking changed the response to the Haiti earthquake compared to earlier disasters”.

    Re the signal-to-noise ratio: I am not sure how this is going to be mastered, but there are some interesting initiatives underway. One of the most promising ones is Ushahidi, a social mapping tool that was deployed shortly after the Haiti eartquake. However, there are many other tools in development, and it is as yet unclear which ones will in the end stand the test of real-life use and which ones will never be heard of again.

  • Michael Keizer

    (I have no clue why the capitals suddenly appear in that quote. Using the ‘cite’ tag apparently was not such a good idea after all.)

  • Laura

    In the talk, it was pretty clear that the CDC certainly experienced something different during the Haiti response that they hadn’t before — I don’t doubt that. I’m not sure how many of the other attendees felt (few had been to Haiti). It may have been that the CDC was just paying attention to the plethora of social networking information out there, like using the information about the shelters. Social networking was pretty trendy during Katrina–although this was pre-twitter–and I was surprised that the CDC experience was so different. Unfortunately, Mark Keim did not elaborate (and I did not think to ask).

    Thanks again for your comments, Michael.

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