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US Disaster Relief Officials Look to Harness Power of Social Media

The massive earthquake that devastated Haiti earlier this year showed disaster relief officials in the United States the powerful role social media can play in responding to disasters - natural or man-made. U.S. officials say they are increasingly looking at ways to harness the power of the Internet and social media to improve the government's response to emergencies.

Stories of people using social media or the Internet to call for help when other means are unavailable is becoming increasingly common. The story of a Canadian woman who was trapped in the rubble after the Haiti earthquake in January is one of many examples.

The woman sent a text message to Canadian foreign ministry officials thousands of kilometers away. The message was relayed back to Canadian authorities in Haiti who were able to find and rescue her.

The American Red Cross sponsored a summit on social media data in Washington this week to discuss ways that emergency managers, government agencies and aid groups can harness new communications technologies.

Noel Dickover, who works with the U.S. State Department's office of eDiplomacy, told participants at the conference that Haitians trapped in collapsed buildings texting the U.S. Marines and Coast Guard personnel for help was a first.

"And you think about the process - they send a text, somebody picks it up, sticks it in to a Ushahidi [a crowd sourcing online crisis network] platform where the diaspora is translating in an average of 10 minutes," said Noel Dickover. "It gets put online in some way; okay this appears to be valid, and then first responders act on that. That is an amazing chain of events. And the real interesting question is, 'What's that going to look like in two, three four years?'"

According to a public opinion survey conducted by the American Red Cross, one in five respondents said they would use e-mail, Internet websites or social media to seek help if they could not make an emergency telephone call.

Fourty-four percent said that if they knew of someone who needed help, they would ask people in their social network to contact authorities; 35 percent said they would post a request on an agency's Facebook social media page.

Perhaps the most telling figure for disaster relief officials, analysts say, is that 69 percent of those surveyed said they expected emergency responders to monitor social media sites and send help quickly.

Jack Holt, the chief of new media operations at the Department of Defense, notes that even his agency, which has stringent information controls, is finding ways to treat the Internet as a field in which to maneuver and not a fortress to defend against.

"The thing about social media is that wherever that crisis happens, it is now local for us," said Jack Holt. "We are all neighbors now."

Holt adds that when a crisis happens, people who have been affected and the information that they can provide create a local, instant command system.

"That instant command system is not for us to be in charge of, but is to give us the information that we need to get resources on the ground to put them to action," he said.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says that in understanding how social media can improve emergency response, it is crucial not get lost in the technology.

He says technology ultimately is a way to empower people to help one another.

"It [technology] is merely another way that we need to continue to empower the public to have greater ownership and understand the roles and responsibilities they have, and to provide them the knowledge, so they can make the best possible decision for them and their families in a time of crisis," said Craig Fugate.

American Red Cross officials note that while more than 60 percent of government agencies are involved in social media, most are merely sending information out to the public rather than bringing it in and analyzing it. Experts say that finding ways to pull in more information and determining what information requires action are only two of the many challenges emergency responders face.