You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Smartphones + Social Media Earn Public "Citizen Responder" Role

BY W. David Stephenson | Monday, February 1 2010

W. David Stephenson is a government/enterprise 2.0 consultant, with particular interest in homeland security and disaster response.

Initial news out of Haiti after the earthquake came primarily through cellphones, gathered and disseminated by social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and agencies such as the State Department have used Twitter and Facebook to spread news about the response. A survivor pulled from the rubble after 65 hours treated his serious injuries using a first aid app. on his iPhone .

As vital as these technologies’ critical role in sharing information is, there’s an equally important but less understood factor that no other communications medium offers: mobile devices plus social media  promote exactly the kind of ad hoc collaborative behavior that experts say is vital in disaster situations.

For thirty years, researchers at the Universities of Colorado and Delaware (the premier institutions for preparation and response studies) have proven that the public does not panic in a disaster. Instead, studies “have consistently shown that at times of great crises, much of the organized behavior is emergent [i.e., complex – and effective – strategies emerge from a large number of relatively simple acts by individuals] rather than traditional…it is of a very decentralized nature, with the dominance of pluralistic decision making, and the appearance of imaginative and innovative new attempts to cope with the contingencies that typically appear in major disasters.“ Doesn’t that sound like what happens with social media?

Perfect strangers, thrown together by fate (perhaps the most dramatic example researchers cite was the evacuation of up to 500,000 from Lower Manhattan on 9/11 by a spontaneous flotilla of volunteers with no one in control) can create effective responses. However, it stands to reason that if they already have some prior social connection, even if only “virtual,” people will get up to speed more rapidly.

I know that in the nearly 4 years since I became user #262 of the now-ubiquitous Twitter, people I have never met physically have become my closest friends, in part because the exchange of so many tweets on all aspects of personal and communal issues give such insights into each other: there’s no one I’d trust more to work with me to cobble together a response if tragedy did throw us together.  

When I give lectures about this “networked” approach to homeland security officials, they are dubious, at best. They have understandable worries about whether laypeople could be trusted in an emergency. My response is blunt: get over it.

Experience has shown that the public can and will use their wireless devices and social networks in emergencies, whether or not officials want them to. If that’s the reality, doesn’t it make sense for officials to provide guidance in advance of what to look for (including suspicious activities that might help avoid a terrorist attack), and how to report it, both to reduce erroneous reports and to maximize helpful information? This would be particularly important regarding videos shot on a smart phone because of the wealth of authoritative information that could be easily shared with first responders. Yet, to my knowledge, no government entity anywhere has taken that step.

The most dramatic example that at least some government agencies are coming to terms with this new “citizen responder” reality was the National Weather Service’s decision several weeks ago to encourage people to report extraordinary weather events (such as “microbursts”) that are so localized that NWS personnel often hear about them first from the public. Now, there is an officially-sanctioned Twitter “hashtag” (#wxreport) which NWS will monitor for emergency reports.

In a speech this summer, Secretary Napolitano called for a new partnership with the public in homeland security, calling the people “ an asset in our nation's collective security.” Making use of social media and wireless devices a formal part of DHS strategy would make that promise a reality.

The era of the empowered citizen is here. The sooner officials learn how to capitalize on that reality, the safer we will all be.