THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA FOR COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION IN DISASTER MANAGEMENT

DISASTER RISK MANAGEMENTAND DEVELOPMENT STUDIES Environmental and Physical Sciences

PREAMBLE

In order to understand the subject in question, the key terms involved need to be defined.

Disaster: This is a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources (UNISDR). 

Disaster management: This is the systematic process of using administrative directives, organizations, and operational skills and capacities to implement strategies, policies and improved coping capacities in order to lessen the adverse impacts of hazards and the possibility of disaster.

This term is an extension of the more general term “risk management” to address the specific issue of disaster risks. Disaster risk management aims to avoid, lessen or transfer the adverse effects of hazards through activities and measures for prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

Community participation: This refers to the involvement of people in any project to solve their own problems or to develop their socio-economic conditions. 

The United Nations defines participation as the collective action by the various strata of people or interest groups. Basically, it is a dynamic group process in which all members of a group contribute, share or are influenced by the interchange of ideas and activities toward problemsolving or decision-making.

Social media: can be defined as “a form of new media that facilitates social interaction and communication through the use of online internet-based platforms. 

INTRODUCTION

Disaster management is a critical organizational function that involves planning and dynamic incident response to situations as they unfold, often in unpredictable ways. The cascading effects of an unfolding crisis can undermine a country’s ability to operate effectively and may result in serious harm to its people, structures, assets and reputation. 

The advent of a plethora of social media tools has changed the landscape of crisis management considerably over recent years with possibilities for social action now becoming realities. With readily available software tools such as online discussion platforms and news aggregators, organizations can now disseminate, acquire and analyze information more efficiently and comprehensively. While social media has the ability to prevent a crisis from spiraling out of control, organizations cannot ignore its ability to aggravate an unfolding crisis situation.

While social media can impact politics, social movements and the communication of information, the technology alone cannot be blamed for sparking the revolts. Ultimately, social media is a tool, and the same tool that can cause a negative impact, can also bring about positive outcomes by facilitating and accelerating the speed and breadth of communication, if properly utilized. This paper examines the role of social media for community participation in disaster management.  It takes into consideration how the social media can be used by communities to participate in various stages of the disaster circle –Prevention, Mitigation, Preparedness and

Response.

UNDERSTANDING THE SOCIAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE

 The medium is not always the message. Social media devoid of purpose and content would do little to enable people to prepare, respond and recover in the face of disasters. Generically speaking, social media can be defined as “a form of new media that facilitates social interaction and communication through the use of online internet-based platforms.” Within this broad ambit, social media tools can be categorized into the following:

  1. Social networks and blogs. Social networking sites refer to sites that allow people to build their own personal pages to enhance content sharing and communication with other people (e.g., Facebook). Blogs are online journals or discussion sites used to post content and relevant updates (e.g., The Huffington Post);
  2. Bookmarking sites. This refers to websites that help people store, classify, share and search links through the practice of folksonomy1 techniques on the internet (e.g., delicious.com, digg.com and reddit.com). When people tag and share content on bookmarking sites, the visibility of shared content typically improves across the board; 
  3. Collaborative projects. Collaborative projects are communal databases created through user generated content (e.g., Wikipedia); 
  4. Content communities. Content communities are online communities where people share various types of content such as photos, audio and videos (e.g., YouTube, Flickr); 
  5. Social reviews. This refers to websites that allow people to search, rate and share information as well as provide recommendations (e.g., Google Places). Using social reviews, people are able to vote on content based on personal interest, inclinations and perceived relevance.

 In contrast to traditional forms of media, which are typically limited in reach and restricted to the place of performance, social media tools are able to broadly overcome these barriers because of five characteristics that differentiate them from other forms of traditional media these include:

 Collectivity: The collective nature of social media serves to connect people across geographical boundaries and time zones via common platforms, to foster the growth of online communities with similar interests

 Connectivity: Unlike other forms of media or communications, social media is able to connect users to other resources through the sharing of web links

 Completeness: Social media is able to capture contributions and keep them in a persistent state for others to view and share

Clarity: Content on social media websites is usually highly visible, with participating people aware of each other’s activities and content posted

Collaboration: People are encouraged to share and contribute in areas they are interested in, by gathering information and providing feedback

HARNESSING SOCIAL MEDIA TO AUGMENT DISASTER MANAGEMENT

CAPABILITIES

Crises are complex in nature, have disproportionate effects and can move at varying speeds. By harnessing the characteristics of the social media tools, organizational capacity to demonstrate resilience in response to crises can be significantly enhanced by creating new avenues for collaboration to help build more resilient communities over time. For example, at the onset of a crisis, information from “social networks and blogs” can be accessed by crisis managers, responders and the communities involved, to help identify the source and severity of the crisis and distribute a consistent message to the affected communities. As search links and other relevant resources are tagged and evaluated based on recommendations by people on bookmarking sites, crisis managers are better able to search and gather information, and respond to on-going developments as they trend.

Social media tools can also be used in enhancing a community’s capacity in anticipating and preparing for crisis. For example, collaborative projects may be initiated on social media platforms to empower interested communities with a rich database of content to analyze and validate information that could support intervention opportunities during a crisis. Crisis managers can also monitor content communities to identify emerging trends and potential hotspots that could become flashpoints for crisis. Overtime, crisis managers are also able to mine through databases of tagged content on social review sites to identify relevant concerns and themes being expressed online as well as key contributors to insightful feedback for further analysis.

 However, for organizations and communities to be effective in utilizing social media tools for crisis management, there is a need to shift our paradigm across seven areas:

i. Purpose: Prior to the advent of social media tools, the use of the Internet was largely confined to informational purposes. With social media tools, people can now share content. However, to truly exploit the capabilities of social media tools, we need to go one step further and find ways to engage people through the use of more creative and interactive social applications to enhance collaboration with like-minded communitiesii.  Core Activity: Effective handling of a disaster situation rests on the ability of disaster managers to gather accurate information on the changing environment and needs of affected populations. To generate actionable knowledge, social media tools of the future will have to be equipped with robust capabilities to support decisionmaking processes with timely analytical insights  iii. Stakeholders: Whereas the state has a monopoly of information in the past, this is no longer the case now. The ease by which information can be collected and transmitted to a wider audience using social media tools means that we have to deal with multiple parties, including NGOs and individual citizens. Social media tools allow us to undertake crowd sourcing , as a means of gathering a variety of perspectives on existing challenges as well as innovative and effective solutions to enhance the management of crises   iv. Information Content: The analysis of emerging issues and their cross-cutting effects can be rather complex. The focus on discrete data alone, such as factual information, may not be sufficient to generate useful insights to guide stakeholder response. New social media capabilities can help crisis managers analyse the interdependencies of discrete data and their associated relationships so as to provide a better understanding of emerging issues and their emergent effects    

v.         Treatment of Information: Concerns about privacy, security, and data

confidentiality can often result in decisions to reduce the scope of data interchange. The adoption of social media platforms that support information transparency and sharing can help to integrate and streamline crisis management processes to satisfy the information needs of all stakeholders involved, and improve the speed and accuracy of crisis communicationsvi. Software Tools: In-house systems typically require a substantial capital investment and possess real limitations to full integration with external systems. Crisis managers need to examine how they can leverage and be plugged into the open-source platforms which can provide a range of flexible tools to gather information, and equip people with the necessary social media and user-generated content management capabilities to enhance analytical processes and work streamsvii. Output: The over-reliance on specialists to provide assessments do not sufficiently take into account the individual’s general lack of understanding for the unknown as well as his or her own cognitive biases when conducting research and analysis. A crisis response formulated by considering specialist assessments, stakeholder perspectives and crowdsourced opinions using social media would enable

stakeholders to make better decisions within acceptable levels of risk and uncertainty.

APPLICATION OF SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS ACROSS DISASTER MANAGEMENT PHASES

Disaster management can be broadly divided into three phases: (1) Preparedness, (2) Response, and (3) Recovery

  • During the crisis preparedness phase, the focus is on preventive activities that seek to reduce known risks that could lead to a crisis. Recognizing that not all crises can be averted, there would be an equal focus in this phase on crisis management planning and training of the crisis management team  
  • During crisis response, the focus will be on the speed and effectiveness of the initial response. There will be a need for quick situational awareness to help authorities respond effectively after the crisis hits. The effective use of social media tools will be critical during this phase to engage community networks in order to gather, analyze and disseminate information in a timely manner
  • While the immediacy of response has passed, the crisis recovery phase requires longer term planning and support to restore the situation back to normalcy.

Across these three stages, social media tools can be used for (1) information dissemination, (2) disaster planning and training, (3) collaborative problem solving and decision making, and (4) information gathering. This is illustrated in Figure 1 and elaborated in the ensuing paragraphs.

  1. Information dissemination: Information dissemination through social media tools is an effective means to provide reliable information quickly to the public to enable them to better prepare for and respond to crises. However, the effectiveness is dependent on the reach and penetration of social media platforms across technological know-how, education, age, language and culture. As an example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) is able to provide early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies based on information gathered because of OCHA’s multimedia platforms such as ReliefWeb and the IRIN news service, which are aimed at providing more detailed analysis to a wider audience;
  2. Disaster planning and training: Gamification (this refers to the use of gaming mechanics to non-gaming situations to promote desired behaviors and the adoption of appropriate applications to support these behaviors) leverages social media for disaster planning and training to promote personnel training, scenario planning and collaboration between various crisis management agencies from the public sector,

private sector and civil society organizations. Gamification can enhance current crisis management practices through sustained stakeholder training and collaboration.

In this respect, the Kenyan Red Cross and the World Bank bring together disaster relief experts and software engineers to work on identifying key challenges and to develop possible solutions through interactive discussions to overcome a range of possible scenarios related to natural disaster risk and response;

  1. Collaborative problem solving and decision making. Crowdsourcing using social media facilitates collaborative problem solving and decision making by integrating various streams of information from mobile and web-based technologies to fill the perceived sense-making and information gaps as well as to aggregate, analyze and plot data about urgent humanitarian needs. As the knowledge base grows, authorities become better positioned to manage and respond to a range of possible crisis-related scenarios. As an illustration, responders from the United States Institute of Peace collect information to improve their situational awareness so as to make more informed decisions on the allocation of resources based on emerging trends;
  2. Information gathering. On-the-scene footage, citizen journalism and disaster assessment are central to information gathering for coordinating crisis response. Al Jazeera uses a community platform that leverages on email, mobile text messages and smart phone applications, to allow the public to voice their concerns, perceptions, and thoughts regarding on-going developments.

Various international organizations and government agencies have used social media platforms and technologies to enhance their capabilities in crisis management. The New York City’s Office of Emergency Management for example, uses Sahana to manage its all hazards sheltering plan involving over 500 shelters capable of housing over 80,000 persons during a crisis. The Dutch Government, on the other hand, operates the www.crisis.nl as a focal point for public dissemination of information during an emergency. Ushahidi, downloadable software that enables people to submit eyewitness reports during a disaster that can then be displayed onto a map has been successfully deployed during the Haiti Earthquake (2010) to crowdsource data from people on the ground to aid relief efforts. SensePlace 2 is another map-based web application that integrates multiple text sources (news, RSS, blog posts) that can then be translated onto a map to allow emergency responders to easily filter through by place or time, so as to analyze changing issues and perspectives.

AREAS WHERE SOCIAL MEDIA CAN PLAY EFFECTIVE ROLE IN DISASTER

MANAGEMENT

Educational

Before a disaster, educating people about the hazard, prevention and self- help during the disaster. During rehabilitation, media can be extremely helpful in providing, accurate and unbiased coverage, post disaster impacts and needs.

Guiding: Guiding people in preparing resource, disaster calendar, resource mapping and preparation of community contingency plan.

Evaluating the emergency plan: This include critically examining the plan and benefits to be transferred to the people. This may include review and improvement of any existing plan.

Social media can provide long term suggestions in the form of structured measure like enactment of certain legislation, adoption of code of conduct etc

CONCLUSION

With increasingly more individuals using their mobile phones to go online worldwide, surpassing time spent on traditional media such as television, radio and print, it would be essential to carefully consider how social media applications can be incorporated into an integrated crisis management platform for effective crisis management. Leveraging social media technologies for crisis management provide citizens with a greater role in preparing for and managing crises which will help build resilient communities. Embracing resilience as a civic value and a social norm should ultimately be the way forward to encourage citizens to take the actions necessary to help themselves and others during times of disasters.

In fact, according to Wendy Harman, the director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, Tweets and Facebook updates travel faster than earthquakes themselves. During the 2011 earthquake in DC, individuals were reading tweets about the tremors before they were event

felt.’ 

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