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As people in distress turn to Twitter, the Red Cross seeks the most efficient ways to respond

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; A07

After the earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross began receiving tweets from people trapped under collapsed buildings. With much of the country lacking cellphone service, people sought help however they could.

But the Red Cross, like many other disaster-relief organizations and emergency responders, didn't have a good way to handle those pleas. Relief workers went through messages manually, contacting search-and-rescue teams, trying to pinpoint locations. It was the first big sign that humanitarian response was being changed dramatically by new technology.

But if someone screams for help on Facebook or Twitter, will anyone hear?

In an online survey of 1,058 people released this week, the Red Cross found that people are increasingly using social media in emergencies, and agencies such as police and fire departments are using it to issue warnings. But most are not ready to respond to electronic distress calls. Ninety percent of first-responders said they don't have the staffing to monitor incoming messages and respond rapidly.

On Thursday, the Red Cross will lead a discussion at its headquarters in downtown Washington with emergency-response leaders, technology experts and at least one social media swami to try to sort through the challenges of coordinating response to floods of real-time information. "We'll have 100 people live-blogging in the [Hall of Service], in the same place where people were rolling bandages during the first world war," said Gail McGovern, president and chief executive of the Red Cross.

Some 70 percent of those responding to the Red Cross survey said emergency agencies should be monitoring social media.

People are working quickly to create new models. During recent hurricanes, some built instant networks posting information about flooding, road closures and evacuation routes onto maps.

Facebook, which got more than 1,500 status updates a minute soon after the Haiti earthquake, created a global disaster relief page. Techies held a "hacks of kindness" meeting.

And CrisisCommons, a volunteer network based in Washington, quickly created tools such as a Creole-to-English translator that rescue workers could use on their phones and interactive street maps using phone-based location technology. "The more people get trained and understand how to use the tools that are available, you're going to see a lot more people helping out their neighbors," said Heather Blanchard, co-founder of CrisisCommons.

As tech experts conjure solutions, the Red Cross plans to use social media to send a message: In an emergency, call 911. It's still the best way to get help fast.

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