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Social Media in Action: Twitter and Emergency Response

If you were reading the news or traveling by plane today, you probably already know about the JetBlue evacuation of JFK airport in New York today.  Turns out the evacuation was precautionary, and ended up being just two paperweights that resembled grenades.  However, to a social media dork like me, the really fascinating part of this story was that I was there (I was one of the evacuees at JFK this morning), and I was directly involved in bringing the story to light (I, along with a few others tweeted about the incident as it happened).

So, why does this matter?  And even more importantly, what does it have to do with emergency response?

Let’s take a look at the timeline for some more information –

Twitter Search Results for "JFK"

Twitter Search Results for

7:54 AM – I tweeted that “Sooo…JFK airport is being evacuated right now….just great.”  Right around this same time, @almacy, @johnhamilton22, and @imnotobsessed also tweeted similar messages about the evacuation.

7:59 AM – One of the people who follow my tweets, Mark Drapeau (@cheeky_geeky) saw my tweet and began re-tweeting so that now, both of our networks of followers would get the information.

8:00 AM – I overhear some JetBlue employees saying that “some idiot had hand grenades in his bag”

JFK Airport evacuated in NYC @JetBlue on TwitPic

Scene outside JetBlue Terminal at JFK

8:03 AM – @almacy posted a picture of the scene

8:05 AM – Mainstream media begins to catch on – Geraldo Rivera on the scene!

8:06 AMBlogsofWar posts the running Twitter traffic

8:13 AM – FOX5 in New York finally reports on the story but with no real information and no mention of “grenades”

8:23 AM – First references to the “grenades” on mainstream media

8:50 AM – Crisis averted, and everyone is let back in to the terminal

We’ve already seen examples of this in the London bombings and the Virginia Tech shootings – today’s evacuation is another sign of the times, albeit on a much smaller scale.  Think about the potential impact that Twitter, blogs, and other social media could have on emergency response efforts.

Government agencies should advise first-responders to start monitoring the social media world, including Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere just as they do the police scanner.  Where the police scanner gave the average Joe a way to learn about what was happening in their neighborhood before the mainstream media could report on it, tools like Twitter do this and more.  Now, not only can people learn what’s going on from people who are involved first-hand and in real-time, they can also use these tools to share this information with anyone else who is monitoring them (like I did).

If this morning’s evacuation had been a serious threat, think about the potential benefits that could have been realized if the government agencies involved were using Twitter.

  • They would have a real-time timeline of what happened from the time the announcement happened
  • They would be able to pinpoint to the minute where people were, and what they were doing
  • They could use the pictures taken at the scene and posted to the web to identify who was where and when
  • Families and friends are notified en masse of people’s statuses
  • Agencies would know what information (and mis-information) is being spread on the ground and could use that to dispel rumors and correct mis-information

Now, I’m not nieve enough to suggest that FEMA should be monitoring Twitter all the time and jumping anytime there’s mention of a disaster.  I’m merely suggesting that government agencies and mainstream media need to place a greater emphasis on mining these sources, and training their staff on how to use the informaton that’s available to them.

I know that there are some real risks to this approach as well – hoaxes would seem to be that much easier to pull off, for example.  Are there others?  What other benefits do you see?  What obstacles exist?

For more information on this topic, refer to these two excellent blogs, who also had an opinion on the  power of Twitter.

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