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In the Gulf, a Joint Online Response

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, May 11 2010

Crews work Saturday, May 8, 2010, to collect oil near and around the location where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire and sank. U. S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel // via Deepwater Horizon Response's flickr

Eight federal agencies and two private companies have combined to produce Deepwater Horizon Response, a cross-agency unified information portal for the joint multi-agency command center working on the disaster response. the federal response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Usually you see the public-facing agencies using social media to disseminate information," Jeannie Sutton, a researcher who studies the use of social networks during disasters, told me when I asked her about social media in the response to flooding in the South. (She told me that the Deepwater Horizon response was her current focus, not the flood that doused Nashville and a swath of the South.) "Instead you're using them to interact with people [as well as] spread information."

The oil spill caused by an explosion at the TransOcean-owned Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in over 5,700 damage claims, and as of Monday, according to a Department of the Interior news release, BP has paid $2.4 million so far in response to those claims.

The petroleum giant will be on the hook for the full cost of the spill, but people along the Gulf Coast need information ranging from fishery closures and how to volunteer their boat to where to go if they want to report seeing birds coated in oil. Joint command centers have long been the established way of doing this, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman told me, and part of the joint response is a centralized website.

"We set up a unified command and inside of that is a joint information center," the spokesman, Mike Lutz, wrote in an e-mail. "Normally one of the first steps when the teams start arriving is to set up one of these sites so that all of the organizations involved can speak with a central voice."

What's different this time, in Sutton's view, is that this government website leans heavily on social media integration, and Deepwater Horizon Response public information staffers are responding to questions in the comments to the items they post on Facebook.

For example, when the response team used its Twitter account to solicit ideas to clean up the spill, its members shot that tweet to people who had tweeted the team:

The next couple of days will see a heavy focus on technology in disaster response. Expect tomorrow's news cycle to include a lot coming from today's White House press briefing, which featured FEMA chief Craig Fugate talking about cleanup in the wake of the floods that swept through Nashville.

And the cleanup in Nashville is far from finished. FEMA announced today that they've partnered with Tennessee's emergency response agency to produce a Facebook page with flood response information for Tennessee — rightly, they do not focus on Nashville alone. Yesterday, I focused solely on Nashville, and perhaps I shouldn't have: Rural areas outside Nashville and in part of Kentucky, with fewer resources than Music City, may be worse off.

Regular readers of this blog may know Fugate as a favorite interview subject of our own Nancy Scola, who, by the way, attended a conference yesterday at the State Department about the role of technology in the redevelopment of Haiti.