Social Media in Emergency Operations Blog Series: Why Integration is a Difference Maker

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Note: Donald “Uncle Donnie” Rumsfeld said this during a Pentagon press briefing when asked about the lack of information connecting WMDs to terrorist groups in Iraq in February 2002 – two years before Facebook existed (February 2004) and four years before Twitter (March 2006.)


In the previous post of this series on integrating social media into response operations, I touched on three prevalent obstacles:

  • Lack of and unclear alignment with existing processes
  • The overwhelming volume of information social media provides
  • Uncertainty as to source and verification of information

I had planned to outline possible paths around these obstacles here but, once again, I was reminded there is too much to this part of the larger topic in this series to condense into a single post.

I also noted an interesting theme arose in some reader discussions surrounding the first two posts. That theme was, essentially, “If it ain’t broke then why fix it?” Perhaps I’m oversimplifying it but that was the gist.

I should point out that the tone wasn’t, “… don’t fix it …,” rather, “… why fix it ….”

I’m taking that as an invitation to delve further into why integration is a worthy undertaking and, in doing so, will begin to address overcoming one of the more prevalent obstacles – the overwhelming volume of information social media generates.

Again, one of the first questions an operator asks during the initial phases of any response to a critical incident is, “What information do we need?” followed closely by, “Where can we find it?” The subsequent line of questions, in no particular order, look something like:

  • Can we trust the information we’re receiving?
  • Can we verify it?
  • If so, how quickly?
  • What information are we missing?
  • What information contradicts what we already know or think we know? (see Uncle Donnie’s comments above)

The advantages, or the why, of integrating social media into operations speaks directly to the questions posed above. Those advantages are:

  • Increased speed at which situational awareness is established
  • Once established, enhanced situational awareness with realtime data
  • Filling-in of information gaps that traditional sources might not

To the question of how managers contend with the sheer volume of information coming from social media channels in order to realize these advantages, the Social Media Working Group for Emergency Services and Disaster Management or SMWGESDM suggests in their white paper,“From Concept to Reality: Operationalizing Social Media for Preparedness, Response and Recovery” that,

“Information found in social media is contextualized against mission objectives so that it can support long-term operations.”

Which is to say that once planners know the unique information needs required to inform operational decision-making or planning for a particular incident response, with a particular geography and demographic, they possess the parameters to weed out non-essential chatter.

The SMWGESDM elaborates on this idea within the context of the “essential elements of information” (EEI) emergency managers look for when preparing for, or responding to, a major weather event.

EEI on the anticipated severity and duration of the weather impact, for example, will inform decisions about evacuation versus shelter-in-place orders. Demographics data for the area, availability of transportation, status of existing infrastructure, location of designated shelters and a community’s ability to evacuate also inform these decisions.

Much of this information is mined from existing sources such as contingency plans, census data, neighborhood maps and other GIS sources. That said, the SMWGESDM points out much of this data may be, “Out-of-date, inaccurate or incomplete.” This is all part of the traditional process of identifying information gaps and attempting to answer questions such as:

  • What information do we need?
  • What information are we missing?
  • Where can we find it?

The answer to how managers sift through the overwhelming volume of social media information begins with the narrowing of the search based on those gaps.

By using traditional processes for gaining situational awareness and identifying information gaps for a specific hazard within a specific geographical area, the emergency manager has already made it easier to sift through social media noise to focus on what is relevant. Social media specialists assigned to the situation unit can use the gaps to add monitoring filters that look for missing information, and emergency managers can work with their public information and liaison officers to develop tactics for requesting information from other sources.

Not only that, but planners can now begin to realize one of the key benefits of social media integration listed previously – the increased speed at which situational awareness is established.

Social media enhances a manager’s ability to maintain situational awareness – in real time – in an ever-changing information environment.

Once objectives are set, initial actions are taken and orders are issued within the first 12 to 24 hours, emergency managers need to assess and reassess the changing needs of impacted communities. This new or revised data will inform how managers triage and prioritize operational objectives and resources.

The SMWGESDM points this out by saying,

“Information gleaned from social media may help prioritize response by providing clarity about community needs. Individuals who did not require assistance change status; medical emergencies, accidents, and crimes …”

The SMWGESDM also points out that as the community shares their shifting needs during an emergency, unofficial resources such as ad-hoc community groups or non-profit response organizations are often able to meet those needs and share via social media. This may also help inform emergency manager triage and prioritization activities.

Lastly, they note that first responders are trained to anticipate needs and make decisions based on their experience at previous disasters, which is a good practice and makes perfect sense, yet,

“When the public’s needs shift greatly from these predetermined responses, social media can more rapidly identify the gaps and enact corrections in decision-making.”

Bottom line, by aligning social media monitoring priorities with the unique information needs of the response, emergency managers not only narrow the focus and weed out much of the overwhelming volume of information they don’t need, but they also gain the unique advantage of enhancing their ongoing situational awareness in real time.

Naturally, a manager has to know the information being gleaned from social media channels is accurate and actionable before it can be used to inform decision-making. The SMWGESDM and I have a few thoughts on that, as well, but it’ll have to wait until next week.

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