Namely, crisis communication.
Following the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri earlier this year school teachers used Facebook to reach out to students, doing a quick head count to make certain everyone was alright and find out who needed help.
After the earthquake shook states up from New York to Illinois and as far north as southern Canada, social media sites lit up with people checking in and checking out what had happened. Photos of damage to monuments in Washington D.C. were posted on Twitter within minutes of the quake.
This unplanned use of social media to keep people informed during a crisis is what has prompted agencies such as the American Red Cross, National Weather Service and Department of Health and Human Services to espouse the benefits of social media and encourage anyone in the business of disaster preparedness or emergency response to make full use of them.
When asked by participants who sent in questions about whether the Red Cross has been able to meet the demands of responding within an hour, Riggen said that's not happening — yet. He said that while the agency is using a variety of platforms, it's an "enormous challenge" to monitor the volume of social media traffic out there. But Riggen did advocate for being prepared ahead of time by downloading useful apps before they're needed. Both the Red Cross and National Weather Service have such apps.
He also shared how the Red Cross is working on developing open-source street mapping with partners like Ushahidi, which had a powerful effect in Haiti by harnessing the strength of crowdsourcing there for information, he said.
Riggen mentioned a free mobile application that provides shelter locations (available through the Apple App store). There is another, the "American Red Cross SOS" app, that teaches First Aid and CPR (available in Android Market).
The Safe and Well site is another Riggen mentioned for the public to know. It's a site where people can register information about whether they're safe and update their social media status.
Joining Riggen was Laura K. Furgione, National Weather Service deputy director. A meteorologist, she left most of the social media questions to Riggen and Stacy Elmer, of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Furgione perked up when talking about how the National Weather Service, which has a little over 72,000 "likes," picked up 15,000 additional "likes" on Tuesday for the Hurricane Center on Facebook. She said 122 of the agency's forecast offices have Facebook pages. And she encouraged folks to keep sending information as the agency's eyes and ears on the ground, as that helps in developing forecasts.
Not that it should surprise, but all three guests laid on the Facebook adulation, and no mention was made really beyond Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. (Sorry, G+!) Facebook does have a Global Disaster Relief page that aims to consolidate emergency resources.
Elmer spent most of her time talking about a contest by her agency that will award up to $10,000 to a developer who comes up with an app to plan and set up an emergency network with "lifelines" with designated posting and checking in duties ahead of the need. Ideally, the app would help " decompress communications systems...so people who really need phonelines can use."
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