Using Social Media in Disasters
[Charles Brownstein, HSI. from his file.]
It seems to me that social media is at its best during times of life-threatening crises. Robert Scoble was the first person in the US to report the devastating China Earthquake earlier this year. Not only did he find out about it through Twitter, he used social media to report it about 45 minutes sooner than did the US Geologic Service. There are other stories about social media being used in disasters. Back in the days of Katrina, Ernie the Attorney was blogging about the shortage of human services in New Orleans long before mainstream media gave it a mention. The Los Angeles Fire Department has several social media accounts. it seems that whenever there is a natural or human-started emergency, new social media stories emerge.
So when my friend Jeremiah Owyang mentioned he had represented Forrester at a day-long seminar put on by the Homeland Security Institute(HSI), I was more than a little curious to find out more about what is going on. First, I learned that HSI, is an entirely different entity than the Homeland Security Department (HSD). The former group is a think tank, formed in 2002 and operating since 2004 to provide research all matters of homeland security. It reports to the Homeland Security secretary, but also conducts projects work with the US Departments of Defense, Education, Interior, Intelligence and even the Smithsonian Institute.
Jeremiah connected me to HSI Fellow Charles Brownstein who ran the workshop. A 20--year veteran of the National Academies,Brownstein joined HSI in 2005, where he serves as a Fellow. In his role there, he leads projects involving information sharing, innovation and collaboration, personal identification systems, national and regional small vessel security, and cyber security R&D planning, among others.
Rather than using SM tools in their own operations, HSI is more focused on empowering on-the-scene orgranizations where the tools can be used to help people at ground zero of an emergency.
1. Before we get to social media, can you give me an example or two of the kind of thinking developed at HSI that has impacted domestic security in the US?
HSI is tasked to undertake a broad array of studies and analyses for DHS, but to remain independent in its approach and implementation. Our work has ranged from doing fundamental work on a national response plan to integrating Federal agencies as they respond to various kinds of emergencies, to specific technical assessments on the adequacy of the testing for the Advanced Spectrographic Portal [which scans US ports for nuclear devices]. In the first instance, we helped the government get its act together; in the second we helped to avoid moving too fast with technology not ready for deployment.
2. What sort of social media programs are you using? Are these used for internal collaborative purposes or are they public?
HSI does not use social media programs, if what you have in mind is Twitter, Facebook and the like. We support our internal operations as a matrix organization with shared drives and operational procedures that don't permit stovepipes. We use wikis on a project-by-project basis where the staff finds them useful.
My particular interest in social media is part of a project that I manage to look at innovation and how to make use of it for Homeland Security applications of DHS.
Folks at DHS who try to look to the future asked us to do that.
3. My sense of Homeland Security is that it is very top down in it's approach. Social media, conversely, works best when it is bottom up. Are you concerned that social media could wrest control from those currently in charge?
I personally have no such concerns and the folks at DHS who asked me to look into it have no such concerns. The application that we are exploring for DHS is the ad hoc incremental use of social media by end users for self assistance in response to emergencies.
DHS asked us to explore how it has been used, its efficacy for self assistance, how to promote its use for efficacious purposes, and then to see how the sort of formal response institutions (police, fire, emergency response, FEMA, etc) might take advantage of what the public does and can be expected to do, to improve their own operations.
4. In an earlier conversation, you told me, "HSI got some people together to explore" social media's possibilities." Can you tell me more about that session?
We put on a one-day workshop that brought together a diverse group of officials from the DHS Policy Office, including Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker, state and local emergency responders from the local FEMA Region, and the California Office of Homeland Security, representatives of national fire and emergency responder professional groups, large and small companies and university researchers. Among private sector and non-government participants were representatives from Google, Cisco, Apple, Forrester Research, Microsoft, UConn, UC San Diego, University of Colorado, Stanford University and representatives from emergency preparedness organizations.
5. Lets talk about disasters. As you've noted, during Katrina, 9/11,during forest fires and earthquakes, Americans have become very active in social media. How can that be braided into HSI & DHS activities?
Again, we are not exploring how to weave social networking into HSI or DHS- but rather doing research into how national, state and local authorities can use social networking in THEIR operations, and advising
DHS on how it can promote such uses. There seems to me to be a number of ways.
First, emergency responders, especially the younger ones, use all of the same social media tools that you use. So they are tuned into how Facebook was used at Virginia Tech by school authorities and students to gain a more accurate picture of events on the ground than the police, the mass media and the public had. So their bosses want to know how to factor their own workers uses into official operations. Police in the Phoenix area, the LA Fire Department and New York City are weaving Twitter into daily operations.
So, from that point of view, we want to make sure that DHS does nothing to stop this from happening more- or better yet, makes it legitimate for local authorities to spend block grant funds to find their own uses.
Second, DHS can look at what information is readily made available by end users of social networking technology, and figure out how to incorporate that information into FEMA and other agency emergency response operations at command centers, such as common operating picture and logistics support systems. To some extent, this means getting local authorities to figure out what works for them, doing some training, or at some point when its well-understood, offering assistance and promoting standards.
Or, perhaps, it means designing and operation "back end" information processing systems dedicated to effectively using the bits that individuals generate for their own purposes.
Third, DHS can look at how the underlying common use infrastructure for social networking, such as application servers, terrestrial or mobile access links and data processing facilities, can be made or kept sufficient resilient, and reliable to be trustworthy in emergency situations.
6. Can you walk me through an example? How would a social media tool, such as Twitter, be helpful to your purposes?
There’s a Twitter client for the iPhone that has an "emergency" button . It has a pre-typed message asking for help and it sends the geo-location and a picture if the user desires, to whomever is following that user. In an ideal world, authorities could have individuals configure their device to send such tweets to the authorities where a back-end system parses the messages and resends it and the rest of the bits from it to the appropriate response agency (fire, police, etc etc.),and they, in turn, use that information to do triage and issue orders or "trouble tickets" to responders, or set up direct communications to the sender or whatever is appropriate. So imagine an event like an earthquake, and contemplate the utility of such a system if it were available.
7. How transparent can HSI and HSD be in telling the public what they are up to related to social media? What would you say to people who are apprehensive about Homeland Security watching what people say and do in online conversations?
I believe that this stuff will be useful at scale only if authorities are100% transparent and if authorities are very careful in official ways to be appropriate about privacy and about use. The critical variable for citizens and authorities is TRUST. Without that, I believe the use of the technology by all parties will be marginal and unimportant.
8. Do you see a point in the future when you will be able to say that social media made America a safer place? How far into the future might that be?
It has been going on for some time. It started the first time emergency responders started using available tech like instant messenger unofficially years ago, picked up steam with deployments of 802.11 around events like Katrina and California wildfires, and began picking up steam with cities supporting Twitter and other applications. I think it’s not "social media" that is important- its mobile social media applications and the entire infrastructure that supports it.
It is still in its infancy, but I think it will grow as rapidly as mobile technology innovations that look and operate like the iPhone are diffused and become more ubiquitous. That will include many non-Apple products and operating systems. To the extent that the many applications that support Homeland Security find a place in this space, we will be safer or at least better able to respond.
9. What technical improvements could be made to social media, making it more useful to Homeland Security?
I think that the key things needed are to keep the infrastructure inexpensive and make it more reliable, and to do the many things needed make the information for any particular application trustworthy.