Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How Social Media Improves Disaster Response

During recent natural disasters, social media has played a major role in dispersing information. According to a recent study, public health officials should utilize social media tools more often in order to best prepare the public for catastrophe. The reason: social media uniquely places public health officials in direct contact with civilians.It will take a few weeks to do a post-mortem to see if officials and government agencies did a good job preparing the public for hurricane Irene. If past natural disasters are any indication, the level of use of social media may be correlated to the success or failure of their efforts.
When an earthquake rattled the East Coast in August, social media sites such as Twitter were immediately abuzz with information, warnings and reactions. According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, social media trends like this can make a major difference in disaster preparedness, response and recovery.


According to the study, social media could significantly improve public preparation and response during natural disasters like hurricanes.

According to the researchers, social media uniquely places public health officials in direct contact with civilians. With over 40 million Americans using social media, the tool allows citizens to get information quickly and researchers to collect real-time data.
Social media can play a positive role in nearly any type of disaster, including earthquakes, oil spills, heat waves and floods. (And in the next few weeks, we’ll see how it did with Irene.)
"By sharing images, texting and tweeting, the public is already becoming part of a large response network, rather than remaining mere bystanders or casualties," the researchers write.  The two-way communication of social media creates "a cohesive story about a recovering community's capabilities and vulnerabilities in real time."
The authors cite several recent catastrophes in which social media provided aid. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, for example, YouTube and Twitter users spread information about vaccinations. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, photographs of damaged animals quickly proliferated throughout the social media landscape, prompting volunteers to aid in clean-up. 
The authors provide several example situations in which social media could play an even larger role. They suggest that location-based apps, such as Foursquare, could enable emergency planners to find nearby doctors and nurses if they have checked-in to an area. The authors also call for an online “buddy system” to help friends and family look after at-risk people during weather emergencies, like heat waves.
The paper proposes the use of RSS feeds and mobile apps to track wait-times and capacities of emergency rooms. Such tools could enable public health planners to better organize collaboration between hospitals during emergencies.
Raina M. Merchant, MD, MS, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, led the investigation. Nicole Lurie and Stacy Elmer of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assisted with the paper.

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