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The View From Your Perch

August 28, 2009

The growth of social media and social networking sites, especially the explosive growth of the microblogging service Twitter, has already provoked intense interest among emergency managers.  Many see these applications as important tools for reaching people quickly with important preparedness and protection messages, especially during emergencies.

In the months I have been using these services in earnest, I have been more impressed, however, with their ability to help me see and hear what’s happening in my community and profession than with how well they help me get a particular message out to others.  Now, Twitter’s developers are adding a feature that may boost this potential even further: geotagging.

In emergency management, information is our most valuable commodity.  As the scale and scope of an emergency or disaster increases, emergency managers often struggle to sift through the vast amounts of complex and often conflicting information available to gain the insights necessary to make decisions, determine effective strategies, and prioritize the allocation and deployment of resources to achieve them.

Geographic information systems and dynamic remote sensing have given emergency managers important tools for processing these details in a way that allows them to examine the relationships between hazards and people before an event and between damage and social disruption during an event.  Knowing what’s happening and where is huge advantage, yet it still doesn’t provide insights into how people are coping or how their expectations are being met.

Twitter, Facebook, and other similar services provide emergency managers with vital new tools for appreciating the consequences of disaster by assessing the impacts of these events on real people in real time.  As Twitter implements geotagging, our ability to filter this information to assess the impacts of events on people in specific locales will improve dramatically.

Although I remain unconvinced that these services have the reliability necessary to use them effectively for time-critical communications such as warnings, I am impressed by the ability of these services to aggregate information from a wide variety of sources essentially in real time.  I have already experienced the utility of Twitter, in particular, as a tool for helping me assess issues and impacts of emergencies as they affect particular parts of the community in real time.

Earning and keeping public trust in the brave new world of social networking will require us to think carefully about how we use these new capabilities.  People need to know we hear and see what they want us to while knowing just as surely that we won’t compound their anguish by invading their privacy.

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