Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The East Coast Earthquake, Real Time Twitter Chat, and Facebook Applications for Disasters

Well! Today was an interesting day at the office. Up and down the east coast, many of us felt the tremors resulting from an earthquake in Virginia. While I would like to report that we all stayed calm and participated in orderly, safe, and well rehearsed evacuations...that was not the case. It appeared that the shock of experiencing an earthquake (such a rare event on the east coast) caused a little chaos. On my way into my office to grab my bag before hitting the stairs, I experienced a "George Costanza" type moment as a fellow staff person almost knocked me down in her rush to get out. I heard similar stories from my husband who works 4 blocks away. Upon recognition of the earthquake, his co-workers made a beeline for the safest escape route...the elevator?!

After the shaking took us down 13 flights of stairs, I quickly turned to the only reliable source for real time information- Twitter. Since I was the only one in the area who either grabbed my phone or had twitter, I quickly read off what I knew: "It is a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia"; "My colleagues felt it in- Baltimore, DC, Boston, NYC, North Carolina"; "No damage except one broken window is reported in Philadelphia". After being given the go ahead to return to the building and settling back into our work, we received an official text/email from the University reiterating the information Twitter delivered an hour before. According to Twitter's official profile tonight, within one minute of the #earthquake, there were more than 40,000 earthquake-related tweets. They reached 5,500 tweets per second (TPS).

As I discussed in a related post back in March 2011, the question for public health professionals continues to be- "What is the role of social media in emergency preparedness and recovery?"

I believe we are making some strides in answering that question. Just yesterday, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)- located within the US Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS)- launched a contest: The ASPR Lifeline Facebook Application Challenge. The goal of the contest is to create applications that prepare individuals for disasters and build resilient communities. Those who opt into the application will be able to identify "lifelines" or Facebook friends that agree to be an individual's emergency contact and act on their behalf in case of an emergency. They will also be able to create a personal preparedness plan and share that plan and the application with others.

Even without the formal application, we have seen social network sites be used for checking in with friends/family and for getting information out quickly. For example, I follow the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management on Twitter, so I got the message quickly that our 9-1-1 system was being inundated with calls since the earthquake and we should only use it with a real emergency...for infrastructure damage, call 3-1-1 instead.

While the Facebook application sounds like a great addition to emergency preparedness, it is important to also consider implementation issues which will impact its reach and effectiveness:
  • Is the application only available to Facebook members who download it ahead of time? Or will it be available to anyone via the mobile web?
  • Do these Facebook members typically update their profile via mobile devices in addition to stationary computers (which may not be available during an emergency)?
  • During the emergency, are there cell networks/wifi to support the communication? (e.g., many reported that cell networks were jammed immediately following the earthquake)
  • Do these "electronic" preparedness plans need to be rehearsed the same way as "in person" plans in order to increase effectiveness?
The HHS-ASPR contest runs August 22-November 4, 2011. I look forward to seeing the winning applications and hearing about how the dissemination will be conducted and evaluated.

What were your experiences today during the east coast earthquake? What did you hear/see from your colleagues? How did you get/send information to others? Please share in the comments section below.

No comments:

Post a Comment