Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Using Social Media to Manage Natural and Human Disasters

During the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015, Facebook activated its Safety Check services, allowing people to notify others that they are safe. Facebook started developing this feature after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The version of this service/tool launched in October 2014 was aimed to serve as a notification system during natural disasters. However, during the Paris attacks, Facebook decide to use and test the service as response to 'human disasters.'1 According to Mark Zuckerberg, "[their] policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for human disasters going forward as well." Over four million people used the Safety Check on Facebook to notify others that they are safe, and over 360 million people got notifications that their friends were safe.

This feature is among many others allowing for a greater role of social media in crisis response. During the Paris attacks, other social media were used as part of the response. Individuals were using Twitter to help people in need to find a shelter by using the #PorteOuverte hashtag. Similarly, the French police used Twitter to disseminated pictures of the attackers. Other tools used during this crisis were Google's Hangouts and Skype, which offered free phone calls to Paris from different regions. The response to the attacks shows that technology can play an effective role in disaster response by allowing people to show support and co-ordinate aid.

The Paris attacks show a greater role for social media in disaster management. Public uses social media in different ways during disasters. One common reason is that it allows them to determine disaster magnitude—that is, get informed quickly by one another. Another one is to check in with family and friends like the case of Paris. In a survey in 2010, the American Red Cross found that half of respondents would use social media to let others know they are safe during disasters. Finally, they use social media to mobilize. While government is seen as the responsible party, there are cases where citizens take matters in their hands and organize emergency relief.  While the benefits of tools such as Safety Check are great for individual users, they should be considered with caution by the government officials and managers. Such tools have the opportunity to offer timely information during disasters but are also difficult to monitor. Further, they provide little insight as to who are the ones in need of help and/or services. Another factor that impacts the reliability on such information, are issues of access during natural disasters. During disasters that result in power outages, individuals that need help the most might not be able to access social media. As such, relying entirely on social media might not guarantee that the picture we have of those who need help is true.