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Chapter 1. Introduction
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Chapter 1. Introduction

This appendix to the SAFER Manual on how to use mobile devices and social applications in a disaster will look both at how they may be used by your staff to help the station continue to operate and how the same devices and applications can also be used to involve your listeners to "crowdsource" [1] information as part of your news coverage.

We begin with a short review of current disaster response theory because that is directly relevant to both continuity of services and how stations will gather and report the news in disasters.

1.1. Emergent behavior in disasters

The two leading disaster research centers, the Universities of Colorado and Delaware, have found that while some individuals may panic in disasters, the public in general does not. [2] Instead, a specific kind of collaborative behavior takes place that leads to effective response.

It is called "emergent behavior," [3] originally observed in the social insects - ants, bees, and termites. When a large number of ants -- or humans -- act at the same time, the individuals. simple, uncoordinated actions can collectively result in complex interactions and effective response.

Researchers have shown this has been the case in many major disasters:

"Studies of evacuation at times of crises have now been undertaken for the last 50 years. They have consistently shown that at times of great crises, much of the organized behavior is emergent rather than traditional. In addition, it is of a very decentralized nature, with the dominance of pluralistic decision making, and the appearance of imaginative and innovative new attempts to cope with the contingencies that typically appear in major disasters."[4]

Similarly, Dr. Erik Auf der Heide wrote:

"... Disasters are different from routine, daily emergencies. The difference is more than just one of magnitude. Disasters generally cannot be adequately managed merely by mobilizing more personnel and material. Disasters may cross jurisdictional boundaries, create the need to undertake unfamiliar tasks, change the structure of responding organizations, result in the creation of new organization, trigger the mobilization of participants that do not ordinarily respond to local emergency incidents, and disable the routine equipment and facilities for emergency response. As a consequence of these changes, the normal procedures for coordinating community emergency response may not be adapted well to the situation."[5]

So, emergent behavior is critical to effective disaster response, and will happen no matter what. However, what is different today is that the combination of mobile devices and social media applications not only allows emergent behavior, but actually fosters it! [6]

Social media users tend to develop "virtual friendships" with others who share similar interests and values, perhaps because the social media tools encourage sharing of real-time information throughout the day in a way that breaks down distinctions between work and personal life and gives a better indication of shared interests and values that in turn leads to deeper bonds.

Also, social media's ability to share real-time, location-based information via mobile devices makes them invaluable in disasters. They can provide precisely the hyper-local [7] information that both the public and first responders need. [8] For example the identities of the victims in the Virginia Tech shootings were first – and, more important, accurately -- identified via Facebook and text messages, considerably before they were announced by authorities. [9]

Some government agencies and media outlets may decry the loss of top-down command and control resulting from the use of social media. However, the controversy has effectively been settled by the technology: people will use social media in a disaster whether or not officials want them to. If that were the case, wouldn't it be better to find ways in which the social media and general public might actually contribute to understanding and managing the crisis?



[1] "Crowdsourcing" is the concept of taking a function, in this case, news gathering, that is normally performed by trained professionals and instead (or in addition) involving the general public in the function.

[3] Emergence. Wikipedia

[6] Stephenson, W. David and Eric Bonabeau. Expecting the Unexpected: The Need for a Networked Terrorism and Disaster Response Strategy. Homeland Security Affairs III, no. 1 (February 2007)

[7] Iskold, Alex. The Rise Of Hyperlocal Information. ReadWriteWeb, Nov. 21, 2007.

[8] Leysia Palen, Kenneth M. Anderson, Gloria Mark, James Martin, Douglas Sicker, Martha Palmer, Dirk Grunwald. A Vision for Technology-Mediated Support for Public Participation & Assistance in Mass Emergencies & Disasters. Proceedings of the 2010 ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science Conference.

[9] Leysia Palen, Sarah Vieweg, Sophia B. Liu, Amanda Lee Hughes. Crisis in a Networked World Features of Computer-Mediated Communication in the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech Event. Social Science Computer Review.


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Use of Social Media and Mobile Devices for Station Continuity and News Coverage  Table of Contents  Chapter 2. Social Media and Station Operations in a Disaster