On 4 April, I attended Social Media in Times of Cri­sis — a sym­po­sium held by the Eidos Insti­tute at the State Library of Queens­land in Bris­bane. The day was designed to address a num­ber of issues cov­er­ing pub­lic and gov­ern­ment use of social media tools in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, use by first and sub­se­quent respon­ders and to exam­ine aca­d­e­mic research on these mat­ters that has been done specif­i­cally with respect to the recent Queens­land Floods.

The day began with Kym Charl­ton (Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Media and Pub­lic Affairs, Queens­land Police Ser­vice) who dis­cussed the rapid increase in matu­rity of QPS’ pres­ence in social media over the past 12 months. Kym had a num­ber of inter­est­ing points to make, including:

  • QPS pres­ence in social media (on Face­book) was signed off May 10 2010 at Deputy Com­mis­sioner level as a six month trial. As a early Decem­ber 2010, prior to the floods, they had 6000 “Likes” on their Face­book page. They were delighted at this point and had no idea what was to come;
  • the entire media team is respon­si­ble for social media and it is tightly inte­grated into other comms and pub­lic safety work;
  • QPS has no for­malised social media pol­icy. It has become a case of just do it. The ben­e­fits are there to be realised. Kym noted specif­i­cally that as a part of QPS’ over­all strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions that the social media com­po­nent is the “eas­i­est, fastest, most effi­cient way to get infor­ma­tion to the peo­ple of Queens­land as well as our media stake­hold­ers.” She noted that ele­ments of the tra­di­tional media have expressed a level of unhap­pi­ness that they are no longer the gate­keep­ers for infor­ma­tion com­ing from QPS;
  • social media “really pro­vided a con­nec­tion” to Queens­lan­ders dur­ing the floods and now, on an ongo­ing basis as QPS has made real efforts to engage with their audi­ence. The same mate­r­ial that goes out over social media goes out over more tra­di­tional chan­nels such as radio and television;
  • the dis­sem­i­na­tion of pub­lic safety infor­ma­tion via social media is seen as hav­ing a direct cor­re­la­tion to sav­ing lives. Clear­ance for infor­ma­tion dis­tri­b­u­tion is at the sworn offi­cer level, as it is for dis­cus­sions of such mat­ters with the media and pub­lic gen­er­ally. No addi­tional clear­ance process is nec­es­sary. On the mat­ter of offi­cers using social media directly in the field, the mat­ter is under con­sid­er­a­tion, but not ready for action;
  • at 12 months into a seri­ous effort on social media, QPS are “still new at this”;
  • QPS media now has over 178,000 Likes on Face­book and has an active engage­ment with many of those peo­ple. Often, things are posted by the pub­lic on QPS’s Face­book page that they had not antic­i­pated (exam­ples were given such as fam­ily mem­bers of offend­ers and vic­tims post­ing infor­ma­tion or trib­utes). This does not stop them being posted. Lit­tle is ever removed unless it breaches the page code of con­duct pub­lished there.

After Kym, Eileen Cul­leton from Ipswich City Coun­cil and the gov2qld user group spoke on the devel­op­ment of the Emer­gency 2.0 Wiki:

  • the wiki is under devel­op­ment and is intended for use by the pub­lic, respon­ders and gov­ern­ment as a light­weight, agile way to improve infor­ma­tion with respect to emer­gency and dis­as­ter man­age­ment with­out the need to process emer­gent mat­ters and best prac­tice through a lengthy lessons learned process that fails to adapt to chang­ing sit­u­a­tions and new information;
  • the wiki, with an ini­tial focus on Queens­land ser­vices, will pro­vide “trusted, locally sourced infor­ma­tion allow­ing com­mu­ni­ties to self-​​mobilise, develop resilience and lever­age social capital”;
  • one of the dri­vers for the wiki was the Social Media for Emer­gency Man­age­ment project that emerged from the Gov­ern­ment 2.0 Taskforce.

Drs Jean Burgess and Axel Bruns from the ARC Cen­tre of Excel­lence for Cre­ative Indus­tries and Inno­va­tion at QUT spoke on their research into the con­nec­tions and analy­sis of social media traf­fic, par­tic­u­larly Twit­ter, dur­ing the Queens­land floods:

  • they have done exten­sive data visu­al­i­sa­tion work on the #qld­floods hash­tag to map the key actors and net­work ties of those send­ing mes­sages across the entire range of inci­dents and into the present day;
  • their research indi­cates strong reliance on offi­cial sources such as QPS, other emer­gency ser­vices and the main­stream media, par­tic­u­larly the ABC, as val­ida­tor sources, even in wider social media use;
  • use of a hash­tag, such as #qld­floods (and its equiv­a­lent in other crises) ensures vis­i­bil­ity and discoverability;
  • agen­cies involved in dis­as­ter man­age­ment should sim­ply “learn and do” rather than wait to get involved in using social tools for their work.

ABC Innovation’s Monique Potts spoke about the ABC’s use of Ushahidi to gather infor­ma­tion from offi­cial sources and the pub­lic dur­ing the floods:

  • infor­ma­tion was avail­able rapidly and was able to be val­i­dated almost as quickly;
  • pro­vi­sion of open data by some agen­cies made the data gath­er­ing easy. Ret­i­cence on the part of other agen­cies made this mea­sur­ably harder;
  • dur­ing this ses­sion, I noted use of Ushahidi in sev­eral other instances of dis­as­ter and con­flict includ­ing the Pak­istan floods, Haiti earth­quake (1 and 2) (partly the sub­ject of the Dis­as­ter Relief 2.0 Report pub­lished by the UN recently), the Japan­ese Earth­quake and Tsunami and most recently and on OCHA’s explicit request for track­ing the emer­gent sit­u­a­tion in Libya (it is worth not­ing that I am a recently added mem­ber of the Standby Vol­un­teer Task Force and in the past have assisted in adding data to Open­StreetMap efforts and some Ushahidi instances).

Dr Kelly McWilliam, a Toowoomba res­i­dent and researcher in media use at USQ spoke on Face­book use specif­i­cally and noted that when users of social media com­bine in such sit­u­a­tions, “cit­i­zen infor­ma­tion seek­ers become infor­ma­tion providers”. In this con­text, the com­bined efforts of offi­cial infor­ma­tion sources and less for­mal infor­ma­tion providers are seen to add real rich­ness to emer­gent dis­as­ter information.

There were sev­eral other pre­sen­ters — jour­nal­ists and aca­d­e­mics — all of whom pro­vided their own par­tic­u­lar insights to the symposium.

I was able to make sev­eral con­tri­bu­tions across the day, based on my expe­ri­ence in col­lab­o­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ties and involve­ment with the vol­un­teer tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties work­ing on dis­as­ter information.

I feel this event, the upcom­ing emer­gency man­age­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­fer­ence spon­sored by the Attorney-General’s Depart­ment and other events over­seas with a dis­as­ter man­age­ment focus, as well as sev­eral reports on the use of con­nected and social tools in cri­sis and dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tions indi­cate a gap in Aus­tralian author­i­ties’ knowl­edge, research and training.

The mat­ter of con­nected com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and matu­rity in its use, either at the oper­a­tional level or at the strate­gic level is a sub­ject that gets lit­tle cov­er­age in our events or research. As a now mature tech­nol­ogy, use of social media and its accom­pa­ny­ing cul­tural norms — embrac­ing of emer­gent infor­ma­tion, a capac­ity to rapidly val­i­date new infor­ma­tion and to fold that infor­ma­tion into prac­tice, and the capac­ity to col­lab­o­rate — ought rightly be some­thing that gov­ern­ment gen­er­ally and dis­as­ter and con­flict respon­ders in par­tic­u­lar do as busi­ness as usual.

A sum­mary of the Twit­ter con­ver­sa­tion from the day is avail­able at the #cri­sis­comm hashtag.

An ABC News story on the sym­po­sium is avail­able at the ABC web site.