IN DEPTH: Dealing with disaster: how social media is helping save the world

IN DEPTH: Dealing with disaster: how social media is helping save the world

In emergency situations, when fleeting seconds can be the difference between life and death, instant social mediums like Twitter have proved invaluable.

Whether it is members taking heed of the hashtagged, location-aware updates from those also affected by natural disasters, or others receiving vital communications from news organisations, emergency services and aid organisations on the ground, lives have undoubtedly been preserved. Beyond that, an estimated 76 per cent of Americans have used social media to let their families know they’re ok, during a disaster… and that was in 2010.

However, Twitter and other tech companies like Google and Facebook, aren’t just allowing themselves to be channels for communication in times of need, they’re taking the initiative, eager to display an understanding that with great social power, also comes great social responsibility.

As part of these efforts, Twitter recently rolled out its disaster alerts service in the UK. It highlights tweets and allows users to sign up for mobile push notifications when qualifying local, national and international organisations send out tweets relating to incoming weather emergencies, evacuation directions crowd and other "imminent dangers."

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It is hoped that bringing these warnings to prominence on mobile devices can ensure people are able to get themselves out of dodge in a more timely manner.

Red alert

Google’s has been helping people reconnect with loved ones in the aftermath of humanitarian and natural disasters. Person Finder was launched during the Japanese earthquake of 2011, and utilised again during the most recent devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which left an estimated 10,000 dead and 600,000 displaced.

Worried friends and relatives can search for the status of a missing person, other users can fill in the gaps and, in the happiest cases, reunification can happen.

Beyond facilitating those crucial "We’re all ok, folks" status updates for users, Facebook is also doing its bit by trialling a Disaster Message Board in Japan, which allows users to mark their friends as ‘Safe’ during an emergency. In times when phone services are almost universally down, these online tools can be hugely beneficial.

Google also published a relief map showing locations for shelters, command centres and first aid stations in the Philippines, while following the devastation of a tornado in the US state of Oklahoma a Google Map was published showing the scale and rank of the damage, while also showing the tornado’s path of destruction.

The most popular social network in Japan, Line was set up after the earthquake in order to facilitate free VoIP calls and instant messages when phone service was interrupted. It recently announced its 300 millionth member worldwide.

Aid Organisations

To aid organisations, like the Red Cross and FEMA in the United States, social media has become central to its rescue and recovery efforts.

During Sandy, 10,000 Instagram photos (#sandy) were uploaded per second, many complete with geo-tagged locations. That’s an incredibly useful source for agencies desperately attempting to decide where best to focus their efforts.

"The Red Cross found its social media tools invaluable during the Sandy response. The data was a real-time pipeline of information on victims’ needs," a representative told us. "The organization wanted to use that data to inform its entire operation."


The Red Cross also used social media to collect 2.5m posts for review, with its team of digital volunteers responding "to the public on behalf of the Red Cross using their own personal social accounts." Those messages offered words of help, support and comfort for frightened as well as information as to where they could seek counseling and support.

Indeed the likes of Facebook and Apple have made it easier than ever to donate to organisations like the Red Cross, by placing prominent links to donations on its sites. Following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Apple enabled donations through iTunes as it has for previous crises.

The facilitation of easy text message donations has also meant greater success for these campaigns, with the total for Haiyan already reaching $16m at the time of writing.

Other services such as iRevolution are taking social media data (there were 20 million tweets during Hurricane Sandy) to build hubs where reliable and helpful information can be amassed.

The Twitter Dashboard aims to use AI algorithms that highlight tweets showing first-hand and eyewitness reports, posts with photos and videos, content from TV and online news reports, enabling users to see the most important and reliable information.

It also plans to include a means to give donations for individuals in the most need of relief and allow other good Samaritans to put themselves forward to assist in the relief efforts.

Misinformation and too much information

As well as offering untold help during times of need, the digital age can cause new problems during emergencies.

Rumour and misinformation can spread like head lice in a classroom full of very huggy 5-year-olds, during these emergency situations.

During the London Riots of 2011, online rumours gained prominence, they claimed the London Eye was on fire, that a zoo tiger was on the loose in Primrose Hill, that army tanks had been deployed in Bank and that some yoofs in Tottenham had broken into a McDonalds to start cooking up Big Macs to feed their looting exploits.

The Guardian built an awesome interactive tool to chart the dissemination of these rumours on Twitter.


In the 24-hour news channel age, with organisations desperate for new information, these rumours and falsehoods can become facts after a few hundred retweets of a faked photo. Twitter knows this and hopes that its Twitter Alerts portal will provide assistance with "crowd and misinformation management" in order to protect those affected by the emergencies.

But it’s not just wrong information causing problems. It’s often too much information that’s putting lives in danger. For example, as police closed in on the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, following a citywide, social media assisted manhunt last April, Twitter users listening into police scanners began tweeting the suspected location to the assailant.

"WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched," @Boston_Police tweeted before feeds of the scanner were taken offline.

The Future

As the social networks, tech companies, news organisations and those co-ordinating rescue and relief efforts better learn how to weed out the rumour and deliberate misinformation, these tools will only improve. Twitter Alerts is still in its infancy as is Google People Finder, while powerful social media analytics tools like iRevolution’s planned Twitter Dashboard could save countless lives.

The continued proliferation of connectivity and smartphones in the developing world will get this information out to the poorest countries, who through some cruel irony are often the worst hit by these tragedies.

Organisations like FEMA and the Red Cross are still adapting to this new social media saturated era and have pledged to implement and develop their strategies during future emergency situations.

Amid the ongoing discussion on the merits, uses and misuses of social media, the potential for it to save the world, or at least some of its inhabitants, must rank pretty highly. We could put up with a few more annoying status updates if it means our loved ones are still around to read them, next time the big storm hits.

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