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Five Lessons From Joplin Tornado Info About Social Media and Disaster Relief

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, June 29 2012

Yesterday, I had the privilege of talking with Genevieve Williams and David Burton, two of the three authors of "The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery," a 32-page guide built on the experiences they (and their co-author Rebecca Williams) had in the wake of the powerful and destructive tornados that hit Joplin, Missouri, just over a year ago.

Less than two hours after the tornados hit, Williams used her iPhone to set up Joplin Tornado Info, as a Facebook page and soon thereafter as a companion website. The sites went viral quickly as they began collecting and sharing vital information about needs, resources, transportation, storage and dispersal of aid. Within days, the Facebook page had 49,000 fans and dozens of volunteer administrators, including community leaders and official resource providers, like representatives of all the affected utilities.

As Williams explained to me during our conversation, which you can listen to here, she set up JTI because of her general sense in the immediate aftermath that there was an "information vacuum" that needed to be filled--and that both the media and local government were too busy on the ground in Joplin to offer that kind of coordinating role. She and her mother are trained "storm-spotters" and they had been watching the news closely at the Joplin tornados arrived. And as someone who didn't live right in Joplin, where the most urgent need was to help victims and survivors of the massive tornados, she and her mother Rebecca sensed that they could be most helpful by providing timely and accurate information over the web. Burton was one of the first five people who volunteered to help them administer the websites, and together they have developed and are now sharing a deep set of "lessons learned" that communities everywhere should pay attention to. Not only that, they've applied those lessons to other natural disasters, building sites like Branson Tornado Info to help Branson cope with a tornado that hit this past February, and more recently setting up pages like Missouri Drought Info and Colorado Wildfire Info.

If you read their report, you will find many useful practical pointers, which I've highlighted below. Here I want to focus on the less tangible lessons that came out of our conversation.

1. Do not try this at home. That is, these kind of civic information hubs don't succeed because it's become ridiculously easy to set up a Facebook page or even a freestanding website. JTI benefited from the fact that Genevieve Williams herself is a social media and web marketing professional, and Burton is a former journalist who now works as the county program director and civic communication specialist for the Greene County Extension Center of Missouri University. I didn't get to talk to Rebecca Williams, Genevieve's mother, but I suspect her years of experience as a crisis intervention specialist and nurse came in handy in enabling the core group of volunteers running JTI to make a series of very wise decisions about how to build and manage their community site.

2. Crowdsource, but verify everything. Nothing, Genevieve Williams told me, was posted on the JTI pages without making sure it was factually accurate. She and her co-administrators knew, instinctively, that the only way their site would succeed as a resource was if they were scrupulously careful about what they posted, and they made sure to correct and admit errors as fast as they could. Some of the professionals in charge of Joplin relief efforts actually thought of Facebook as a place for rumors and disinformation, Williams said, so they knew they had to work hard to earn a reputation for credibility. In the early days, everything they posted was initialed by the person who wrote it, so they could have full transparency and accountability. They also didn't just let anyone volunteer to help administer JTI--they made people fill out applications so they could prioritize people with useful skills and knowledge.

3. Understand the power of search. There's a reason why pop-up sites like Joplin Tornado Info can rapidly "go viral" and become self-sustaining information hubs that whole communities can rely on. As Burton said to me during our conversation, when a disaster strikes, people don't google for generic aid agencies like the "Red Cross." They use search terms that are directly about the community affected. And this is one way that hyper-local self-generated hubs are likely to continue being more important than legacy organizations with national profiles--even ones like the Red Cross that do immensely valuable work. (Representatives from those relief organizations were welcomed as co-administrators on JTI's web pages, though.)

4. Social media is just one tool in the larger tool-box. No one suggests that a community should stop using word of mouth, phone calls, postering , AM radio, and every other old-fashioned means of sharing information in the wake of a disaster, now that we have Facebook. And obviously there are many people who aren't online or as comfortable getting information by using the Internet.

5. Independent community hubs have a special role to play. When I asked Williams and Burton if in the future it wouldn't be better for sites like JTI to be built and managed by local governments or private relief agencies, they both balked. Neither of those can move fast enough, they said, suggesting that bureaucracy would get in the way. And those entities, they added, all come with baggage and might subtly skew the information they share to protect incumbent interests (or, in the case of a newspaper, the feelings of local advertisers). By contrast, a site like JTI run totally by volunteers could be completely focused on serving the people most hurt by the disaster, without fear or favor to anyone. As they say in their guide, "This is a crisis, not a contest. Don't be afraid to borrow from other groups and don't be upset when you are borrowed from. Fan all pertinent pages, repost and share."

As I talked with Williams and Burton, one other realization struck me. Like Jimmy Wales with Wikipedia, or Craig Newmark with Craigslist, in the wake of the 2011 tornados, Williams and Burton became network weavers for Joplin. Their leadership wasn't the old style of charismatic "take-charge" types confidently barking orders at underlings, but something new and also familiar to those of us who work in the networked age. Whether by luck, instinct, or remarkable savvy, they made JTI work using the same rules-of-thumb that make many other net-centric platforms work: Rough consensus and running code, non-discrimination, transparency of sourcing, welcoming people who want to help without prejudice. Not once did they mention politics or any political affiliation, and when I asked about it, they demurred, saying they kept those concerns to themselves.

Obviously, the success of Joplin Tornado Info was also due to something much larger--the massive and welcome wave of social solidarity that flooded into and around the city in the wake of the tornados. These were the biggest and most destructive twisters to hit an American city since WWII, Williams pointed out. Burton said he knew the storm was bad when he saw a Joplin telephone book and other debris land in his parents' yard many miles away just after the storm passed. The moment of solidarity that they experienced and help nurture reminded me somewhat of New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, where people everywhere gathered to offer each other support and to shower supplies and gifts on the first responders who had rushed downtown after the Twin Towers were hit.

Can that solidarity be continued after a city like Joplin starts returning to "normal," whatever normal is supposed to mean after 161 people are killed and 8000 homes destroyed (out of a population of 50,000)? And does being networked make that solidarity more of a social fact, something that people can point to and hold up as a goal or an ethos? I don't know the answer, but perhaps it's not a coincidence that the logo of Joplin Tornado Info shows a multicolored array of hands reaching together towards the sky. "No One is a Stranger," the logo adds. Indeed, in our networked age, no one needs to be a stranger any more.

Highlights from "The Use of Social Media for Disaster Recovery":
-Social media work in the wake of a disaster is a 24-7 job that can't be done by one person.
-Your core team should include people with experience in "social media management, marketing, PR, crisis intervention, IT, journalism, copy-writing, construction, logistics, nursing and meteorology."
-Include administrators from utility companies, city representatives and other official groups as soon as possible.
-Don't give admin privileges to someone you have not at least talked to in advance, to make sure they understand your goals and guidelines.
-Don't ask your city or relief groups for help. They have more pressing needs to meet.
-Do not champion any one organization. Instead, encourage honest community dialogue.
-Embrace the help of social media volunteers from far away.
-Create an internal Facebook group for all page administrators to assist with coordination.
-Watch how fast your timeline moves and repost vital information often so it isn't lost in the shuffle.
-Delete or ban inflammatory remarks, spam, self-promotion, sensationalism or false or unverifiable information.
-Use a crowdmap service to track needs and supplies.
-Use Google documents that can be edited by anyone to track information.
-Use your Facebook page for breaking information and make your website a comprehensive and more static information source.
-Look at Recovers.org (which just won a Knight News Challenge award) as a potential recovery website template.