Mobile technology and social media are so entrenched in our lives that I feel like a dinosaur for even raising the subject. But their role during a crisis throws up some serious questions about reciprocity and managing expectations.
Articles in this issue demonstrate how far social media has become one essential way of reaching out to stricken communities. And just as well, for in a crisis many people will: “Skim the net, confer with their peers and reach their own conclusions on the best way forward.”(p62)
It appears that cellular networks are more resilient than expected. In the Haiti and Christchurch quakes, those trapped in rubble used their mobile phones to let people know they were alive and to help rescuers reach them.
Sometimes official practices can lag behind: take the example of the helicopter rescue pilots on p14. They were given street names to respond to, but the streets were under water and unrecognisable. The solution? An iPhone and Google maps. At a recent US Government sub-committee looking at social media and emergencies, the American Red Cross testified that a survey revealed one in five people needing help would try to reach responders through email, websites or social media if dialling an emergency number did not work. And 69 per cent said emergency agencies should be monitoring social media sites to send help if necessary.
How many agencies can live up to this expectation? How practical would this be? How many have the will, resources or flexibility to accept, process and act upon information from multiple sources?
Governments and rescue agencies are adept at disseminating information; some are getting better at receiving it. Two-way information gathering in a crisis has an increasingly important part to play in developing real community resilience.
This comment was first published in 2011.