Will social media come to your rescue?

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter link people around the globe. But until recently, they have been oriented toward leisure activities such as connecting with friends and playing games. Now, social media tools are beginning to support serious endeavors, including crisis response efforts by FEMA, the DHS, and police and fire departments.

In 2008, Egyptian police detained a UC Berkeley graduate student, James Buck, for photographing a protest near Cairo. Buck tweeted “Arrested.” His followers notified Berkeley, which obtained his release through the U.S. State Department and local attorneys. In 2009, two young Australian girls trapped in a storm sewer used their phones to update their Facebook status. Friends notified authorities, who rescued the girls. More organized uses of social media during emergencies are in the offing. The American Red Cross recently hosted the Emergency Social Data Summit to discuss capitalizing on social media during emergencies.

Crisis responders are attracted to social media because they are:

Pervasive. Facebook has over 500 million subscribers worldwide , with 1 billion projected by 2013.

Inexpensive. It is nearly always more cost-effective (and quicker) to build systems on an existing platform. Social media apps are relatively easy to develop, allowing relief organizations to spend their time and money meeting victims’ needs rather than building complex IT infrastructures.

Flexible. Social media platforms were designed to facilitate customization and extension. This allows an app to be repurposed for multiple disasters. The Ushahidi application , developed to track violence in Kenya, was adapted to track volunteers, supplies and shelters following the Haiti earthquake and was also modified for use in the response to the BP oil spill . The Red Cross’ “Safe and Well” survivor registration Web site , which was designed to help reconnect friends and families after Hurricane Katrina, was recently updated to include a direct feed to Facebook and Twitter. In addition, people away from their homes during a disaster can visit the American Red Cross Flickr site to see disaster photos and determine whether their neighborhoods sustained damage.

Crisis responders are beginning to augment official information channels with up-to-the-minute data from social media. But privacy concerns abound. In a crisis, reconnecting family members is critically important. But the same data needed for that could potentially be used for harmful purposes, such as robbery or identity theft. Moreover, emergency responders need access to potentially sensitive personal data of the sort that social media services have been criticized for sharing. This raises the question of whether crisis responders should be able to override privacy controls within various social networks.

Finally, emergency responders often obtain information from phone-call-based services such as 9-1-1 emergency systems. A recent Red Cross survey found that people who weren’t able to reach emergency operators quickly by dialing 9-1-1 often turned to e-mail or social networks. Unfortunately, few 9-1-1 call centres can accept data from social media; valuable text messages, photos or videos can’t be forwarded to responders. That’s not good, especially in an emergency.

Social media platforms are maturing and becoming serious communication channels that facilitate problem-solving in creative and unexpected ways at commercial, governmental and not-for-profit organizations. How can your company use them to achieve its goals?

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at [email protected].

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