How people turn to social media during natural disasters

Social media has redefined communication and made it even better, especially during emergencies

By Vijdan Saleem
Published: Wednesday 29 April 2015

Social media has redefined communication and made it even better, especially during emergencies

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook can improve relief and rescue operations (Photo taken from Facebook page)

As Nepal experienced its worst earthquake in more than 80 years which killed more than 4,800 people, Facebook activated its special feature—Safety Check—which helped friends and families locate their near and dear ones.

By using this particular feature, users close to the site of the disaster can mark themselves safe and notify their friends. Besides this, Safety Check also urges other users to indicate when people they know are safe.

The feature was developed by Facebook after its engineers in Japan developed the Disaster Message Board to help people make contact during and after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Social media and communication

Social media has changed the way of communication. People now get news through it and companies consider it an integral part of their marketing strategies. It is often used as a medium for influencing voting patterns during elections.
Apart from all these positive features, social media is also slowly turning out to be a live-saving tool. In theory, it is a complete communication model where a user sends out information, receives feedback and responds to it.

Disasters and social media

Qualitative, quantitative and behavioural research suggests that social media has come as handy and of great service during natural disasters.

 Related Articles
Killer structures
Earthquakes are imminent with the Indian tectonic plate moving northward every year. Our focus should, hence, shift to building earthquake-safe structures
The US-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated in its 2013 National Preparedness Report that during and after Hurricane Sandy, users sent more than 20 million Sandy-related Twitter posts with the help of broadband networks.

New Jersey’s largest utility company, PSE&G, said that during Sandy they updated their Twitter feeds and used them to send information about the daily locations of their tents and generators.
In times of natural disasters, people tend to use social media for several reasons—to check on family and friends, seek support, gather news about the magnitude of the disaster and provide ground-zero first-hand accounts.

Relief and rescue operations

Apart from improving rescue and relief operations, people can also use social networking sites to send donations. Facebook users are now seeing a message at the top of their news feed asking them to donate to International Medical Corps (IMC), which has emergency response teams in regions hardest hit by the earthquake.

By using the Donate feature, people can directly donate to IMC to support their relief efforts on the ground, according to Facebook.

“Facebook will match every dollar donated up to $2 million. Facebook’s matching funds will be distributed to local relief and rescue organisations working to provide immediate and ongoing relief,” the social networking site says.

Twitter and the Nepal crisis

Twitter’s Alerts feature builds upon and gives enhanced visibility to some of the best practices during a crisis, which many governments and emergency responders have already demonstrated.
“Social media has revolutionised communication during disasters,” says US’ Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate.
“Today we have a two-way street—residents are informed about hazards in real time and emergency managers receive immediate feedback on the consequences of a disaster. Twitter Alerts provide an opportunity to get information directly from trusted sources.”

During the 2014 Kashmir floods, an automated SOS service was introduced after the army and Twitter collaborated for rescue operations. This is considered one of the largest after-disaster campaigns in the recent past.

SOS feature

During natural calamities, the collapse of infrastructure hits network and telecommunication facilities. Major telecom infrastructure had collapsed with the exception of one or two service providers during the Kashmir floods last year.

Local officials had no way to contact the government or the army. Though the army was equipped with satellite phones, they were of little help as the location of people waiting to be rescued was not known.

Realising this problem, Twitter used ground information which was constantly being updated for the cause of rescue.
“One of the major challenges for the people who were trying to make sense of the constant arrival of information was to classify it. The tweets included were of various kinds,” Raheel Khursheed, Twitter head news, politics and government, India, said.

There were various kinds of tweets. While some expressed anguish and grief, others called for help. The final and the most important ones were of those coming out of the flood-hit regions. These had to be sifted, classified and channelised to make the best out of such reactions.

“What we did at Twitter is that we channelised the SOS information which was received using the Twitter feeds by running it through a code which separated the SOS tweets from the rest, under #kashmirfloods. This information was then sent to the officials of the Indian Army who used it for rescue operation,” Khursheed added.

Major General Shokin Chauhan of the army’s public information office was quoted by The New York Times as saying that the army saved over 12,000 people based on information from social media during the Kashmir floods. Apart from the SOS service, Twitter was also used to channelise relief materials from across the country.

There were almost 40 collection centres throughout the country and numerous distribution channels in the flood-hit valley for despatching relief materials. The creative use of social media, thus, saved several lives.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.