During Google's annual I/O Development Conference, CEO Larry Page mentioned that the cost of raw material of a mobile phone is approximately $1. That was profound to me! Cell phone devices routinely sell for hundreds of dollars with individuals lining up to be an early or first adopter of the product. That is an extraordinary return on investment for the various manufacturers of mobile devices. Clearly this added value is based on a variety reasons, but most often because it allows people to exchange in community, conversation, tools, and social networking.
What is the lesson for emergency managers? What can we learn about adding value to our community considering that most of our communities have minimal staffing and limited resources for "raw materials"? The following is a few opportunities:
Emergency management professionals often expect our constituents and customers to come to us for information. We anchor relevant information to our offices, brochures, websites, and minimally used social media systems. Instead, we must actively and intentionally engage in taking our information whenever and wherever they want it, which may change dynamically as new systems and methods of information are identified and developed.
COMMUNITY & CONVERSATION
Emergency managers often struggle to engage in conversation with our community. Because we are responsible for directing the process to respond and recover from dynamic and often uncontrollable events, we forget to stay engaged in community and conversation before and after these types of events occur. We expect our constituents to listen and comply -- without question or concern - instead of working with them to understand the issues and establish common and shared priorities.
One of the coolest features about mobile devices is the dynamic and ever-changing possibilities that are created. System and program developers are given key access to certain systems and ultimately build engagement tools, devices, and systems that add value to the basic and "raw" materials in the original unit. This same approach should be applied by emergency managers by better utilizing volunteers, community partnerships, and private engagement in ways above and beyond the standard approach, which typically limits the location and input into strategic areas.
While these characteristics are a unique consideration for each organization involved, they are an excellent place to begin to change our focus and outreach. How much are you worth? How can we all add value to our organizations and community. Let's all strive to be something our community actively wants and is willing to engage in routinely and repeatedly. Only then will we really begin to create preparedness momentum.
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Last week a colleague pointed out an interesting phenomenon related to social media systems. One of the first systems available to the public was a blog. Blogs were great communication tools and allowed people to publish their own content without limits to the amount of text used or on the topic presented. Eventually social networks like Facebook rose in popularity. These systems limited the amount of information that could be posted to just over 400 characters or a couple of sentences at the most. The next phase was microblogging systems like Twitter that capped the amount of information to no more than 140 characters. The most recent development was systems like Pinterest that initially present only photos in a categorical fashion.
This development cycle is particularly interesting in its application for emergency managers. It speaks to the need to be brief with the information that is sent and received before, during, and after disasters. It is no longer effective to simply provide long expository messages about the dynamics of a given situation. Rather, emergency managers and crisis communicators must be capable of stating their message in long form (blogs), medium form (Facebook), short form (Twitter), and in one solitary image (Pinterest).
Much progress has been made on how emergency managers should utilize blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, but Pinterest is very challenging. Very few professional uses exist, but clearly we need to begin to expand how we approach this tool and the consideration of stating our message without words, but still full of purpose.
Of course we do, but we don't often show it.
That's why I was so happy to see the Emergency Management Magazine article last week that was profiling various public safety and emergency management agencies in Edmond (OK), Albany (NY), and Tampa (FL) who had made videos of their version of the "Harlem Shake" internet fad. While I don't know exactly what happened, I imagine some ambitious public safety personnel went to their boss (who then went to their boss) to a ask permission to this make this video. The conversation probably went something like this:
"Can we make a Harlem Shake style video where we all dress up in strange outfits and dance around for 30 seconds?"
"Because everybody is doing it and it's HOT on the internet."
"It will be great. They'll love it."
But somewhere in there, somebody realized that it's okay to have some fun and show a little personality. It's important to maintain professionalism and purpose, but it's also okay (especially in an ever changing social media world) to relax and enjoy the ride. While some members of your community (possibly including your boss or elected official) may object to fun imitation videos (see Gangham Style and Call Me Maybe as well) the community will greatly enjoy it because you show that you are human just like them. You are more likable, more approachable, and far more apart of the community which is critically important before, during, and after emergency events.
I don't emergency managers will ever start an internet fad, but we can always ride the wave with our community and have a little fun while we do it!
The information aggregation system called Reddit has established a discussion board for information related to the identification of those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this week. Several information strings include a detailed evaluation of some public and professional photos of activities related to the Boston Marathon. For example, one set of photos attempts to identify one or more individuals (aka Blue Robe Guy) who were carrying backpacks similar to the photos shared by the FBI. Another discussion string provides a layman's breakdown of the bomb components also released by the FBI.
The question is whether or not these kinds of postings help or hinder the process of investigating a major act of terrorism. One the one hand, basic crowdsourcing concepts will tell you that the more people who look at something the more likely a real and viable solution will rise to the top. This is especially true after government investigators openly shared photos and pleaded for help from the public in identifying the perpetrators. On the other hand, the growth of conspiracy theories and the lack of professional experience could lead these types of social communities to jump to conclusions or inadvertently accuse someone who may have had no involvement whatsoever (see Blue Robe Guy above or Richard Jewell ala 1996).
So the question remains -- will crowdsourced terrorism investigations help or hurt the process?
I know one thing -- these types of emergent investigations will continue in the future now that people have seen it done and want to help. So what do we do about it?
The last several years have been very exciting as emergency managers of all kinds and shapes have begun to really embrace some of the operational possibilities for social media during response and recovery. Even research is beginning to catch up on evaluating how people engage in information shared via social media channels.
But what emergency managers (including myself) often forget is the fact that social media, wireless devices, and other emerging technologies are also tremendously beneficial on a day-to-day basis. As a matter of fact, how many of us feel like we waste our days in meetings, organizational planning, or other necessary but mundane tasks that may or may not be really helping us prepare our organizations better? The good news is there are tools that we can all use that may help this process by saving time and reducing the amount of time we have to spent in meetings!
SCHEDULING -- Doodle
Doodle is an amazingly powerful tool to schedule meetings. I dread the amount of time it takes to exchange emails and/or phone calls with the multiple parties I need to invite to a meeting. Instead, Doodle allows you to send an email with available date and times to the impacted parties and they "vote" on the best times. You can then quickly find the time that works best for everybody and get on with your work!
People spend a tremendous amount of time just moving back and forth from their office to physical meetings. The use of online meetings (most of which cost money) is increasing, but is still not prevalent. Alternatives such as Skype or Google chat rooms are a quick and easy way to have a meeting with multiple parties without the delays of travel. While the classic face-to-face meetings will never completely go away, we all could be more realistic about when and where they need to happen so everybody can get back to work!
Business cards are important as they allow two parties to exchange information. But in reality, cards are an inefficient process. They are exchanged and then often left at the meeting, forgotten in a folder or added to a large "just in case" stack on someone's desk. There are multiple options that can improve this process. For instance, Evernote Hello allows you to take a photo of the card which is then scanned and added to your contacts. Likewise, other apps like Bump allow the quick exchange of information by simply touching two devices. This is much quicker and ultimately much more efficient.
Online systems like Pirate Pad, Google Docs, or Evernote allow for real-time (or nearly so) collaboration between multiple parties. Think about the amount of time spent emailing documents back and forth for review. Moreover, it is often clear what the current revision is and/or who made the changes. These issues dealt with and make your time much more efficient.
These are just a few of the options that exist that can help with productivity and organizational management. While it is great (as I often advocate) to have these tools during events, utilizing them before is not only more efficient it helps you become more comfortable when you need them during high pressure events.
Earlier today, Security Week posted an article about how the Mumbai Police are setting up India's first "social media lab" to monitor public activities and information exchange on systems like Facebook, Twitter, and the like. This police agency identified 20 police officers to support the effort and will work as a special operations branch. This information is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it continues to reinforce that emergency management and emergency services agencies continue to see the importance and relevance of information distributed via social media systems. Additionally, it begs the question -- are social media tactical teams (like this one) the wave of the future in public safety?
Clearly social media monitoring is a need and has been accepted by many agencies and professionals and is an excellent source of incident information and awareness. Unfortunately, most agencies (no matter what function they serve) do not have the personnel or financial resources to dedicate to a team such as was implemented by the Mumbai police. However, give the importance of monitoring, it cannot be ignored. Instead, there are a few options that can be implemented, which are as follows:
1) Regional Social Media Response Teams -- Much like many specialized resources purchased and utilized by grants (ex: Bomb/EOD Teams). A group of police or mixed discipline operators could work together to monitor social media or broader geographic ranges and share information to specific units or geopolitical groups as needed or desired. This model is also already leveraged in some Fusion Centers.
2) Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOST) -- The VOST model leverages an activated team of individuals spread out over a vast geographic area (which are most often unrelated to the political entities) who search social media and monitor relevant information about the event or area. This takes pressure off local resources that may otherwise be engaged in a local response or activation.
3) Localized Volunteer Teams -- Much like VOST, a set of local volunteers (ex: CERT members) could be activated to monitor social media and provide it back to an organization or EOC to improve awareness.
While these models are not the only options, they are the most likely to accomplish the goal of increased social media awareness with limited resource commitment from organizations already financially challenged.
NBCNews ran a story this morning about the movement in mosh pits at heavy metal concerts. Mosh pits often occur at some concerts where "random groups of people dance wildly and a bit violently" in response to the music. While certainly not appealing to everyone, the article points out that the actions in those dance circles or pits is often not as random and unpredictable as it seems. Graduate students as Cornell University determined that the actions actually followed a concept called "Collective Motion", which is similar to a ripple movement which can be observed and often predicted.
While this behavioral observation certainly has application in other highly dynamic events like emergencies (ex: fire evacuations), it also has application to how emergency managers understand social media. Many emergency managers and public safety officials are overwhelmed by the amount of information on social media and often choose to ignore it with the attitude that it is simply an overload and unpredictable. However, as noted author Clay Shirky states, "It's not information overload, it's filter failure". Much like the researchers who investigated the mosh pit, emergency management professionals must begin to look for ways to filter and predict relevant information on social media.
Fortunately, there is an ever growing collection of statistical and analytical research in this area as well as a plethora of free resources that begin to allow filtering and aggregation by keywords, hashtags, and other relevant text. Examples include Monitter, TweetGrid, TrendsMap, SocialMention, Google Alerts, and many more. Here is a link to a site that reviews 12 different tools, but there are many more out there. We have to begin to utilize these tools in everyday ways much like the other resources and equipment available during disaster management and response.
That standard box of chocolates that we give our friends and family at Valentine's Day is kind of boring. With all due respect to those who love those boxes and to those who manufacture them, they are no longer a special and unique way to show people we love them. Disregarding any health considerations, these boxes used to be special because they represented something that was special, set apart and different from the grind of life and represent our corresponding affection to the receiver. These little chocolates were decadent, special, seasonally limited and always expensive. Unfortunately, over time, the availability of chocolate -- in literally thousands of varieties--has eroded this status. The average person can get their small tasty chocolate fix every day and in any way they like (just think about the number and variety of Hershey's Kisses available from any fine sundry store). The box of chocolates is just not the same anymore and no longer adequately expresses the intended message -- especially this time of year.
Similarly, many emergency managers approach their communications messaging the same way. Emergency preparedness and community readiness messages have literally stayed the same, unchanged, for more than forty years. It's time to admit that we need a new approach to messaging that is diverse, on-demand, and driven by others. This is most often accomplished by utilizing emerging communication tools like social media. This allows the receiver to pick and chose the types of messages at the pace and direction they desire. The fundamental message may be the same, but it feels fresh and real rather than stagnant and cliched.
So I recommend all emergency managers consider their approach to the community. If we keep giving the community the same box of chocolates, they aren't going to think we care. If fact, if they haven't already, they might break up with us and get their information fix somewhere else.
Happy Valentine's Day!
Yesterday, noted Marketer and organizational leader Seth Godin posted a blog entitled "Humanize It". He talked about the balance between industrialization and personalization when driving a product. For example, he states that industrialists "dehumanize what they make...[because] it is the brand and the organization and the factory that is know and trusted, not the person on the line".
While emergency managers and disaster responders don't work in factories or produce physical products, we do create products and systems that significantly impact those who have been (or might be) impacted by disasters. Godin's lesson is therefore important -- particularly in light of how social media is changing the dynamics of disaster management. Specifically, traditional emergency management functions have focused on efficiency and standardization through national models like NIMS and ICS to ensure interoperability and flexibility. But in many ways this has forced responders and the organizations they represent to become devoid of personal touches. In turn, this results in a growing number of responders become more fixated on the process than on the problem (or the products per Godin).
But social media is beginning to turn this tide. Organizations and responders who actively engage in social media inveribly have to humanize their response. The conversations and the engagement remove the neutralized approach and force people to see each other as the individuals they are rather than a dot on a map or a number on a screen.
Fundamentally, everyone gets into emergency management and disaster response to help those in need. But much like other things in life, we can sometimes slip into patterns that erode our real purpose. Social media also always extreme creativity and engagement never before seen. Embracing social media -- and all the good and bad things it brings -- is a major step toward putting the right attitude back into the process.
Most emergency managers would agree that 2012 was a major year for both disasters and the continued impact of social media and other emerging technologies. To highlight the later, I collected the following top buzzwords for social media and emergency management for the last year. While these buzzwords don't necessarily represent new concepts or technologies, they are issues that seemed to have risen to the top of interest and important to the field of emergency management over the last year.
#SMEM-- This is a Twitter hashtag used by a growing number of emergency managers and first responders to share information and collectively address rising issues and concerns related to social media and disaster response. In a matter of a couple of years this collection of thoughts and thought leaders has become a go-to source for validation and verification of a variety of issues.
Crowdsourcing -- This is the concept that the collection of individuals, communities, interests, etc. can be a very powerful asset or enemy depending on the circumstances. Fairfax County (VA) became the first government organization (that I am aware of) to officially push out a Ushahidi crowdmap during the preparedness period before Superstorm Sandy.
Mobile Devices -- While cell phones have been available and utilized for many years, the rise of tablet computing joined cellular devices as a nearly ubiquitous option for people in all community and social sectors. Emergency managers have had to quickly change their approach in how they deliver information to their community by utilizing social media, mobile websites, or apps. For example, the American Red Cross rolled out a variety of emergency preparedness mobile apps to help people become more prepared for hurricanes, first aid, and other issues.
VOST -- The public use of social media to communicate during disasters has finally pushed emergency managers to identify alternative management strategies such as the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST). The concept utilizes non-localized volunteers to search, filter, and aggregate disaster related information and report it back to the Emergency Operations Center. Teams are being deployed throughout the world due to its innovative and resource-efficient approach.
Instagram & Pinterest -- Social photo sharing sites played a huge role in 2012 disasters. Disasters were defined not by images captured my professional media, but rather through the mobile devices of those impacted or living through the event. At its peak, there were 10 photos posted to Instagram per second during Superstorm Sandy.
So there it is. What did I miss? Where am I wrong? I know for sure that 2013 will be an amazing year to watch to see how emergency management and disaster response is particularly changed through these systems.
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