The HEROIC (Hazard, Emergency Response, and Online Informal Communication) Project Team is a collaborative research team comprised of individuals at the University of Colorado -- Colorado Springs and the University of California - Irvine. They recently released a study of the Waldo Canyon Fire which occurred in late June 2012 in the Colorado Springs area of Colorado. This particular fire impacted more than 32,000 residents and resulted in more than $352 million in insurance claims. From a social media perspective, there were more than 100,000 messages from more than 25,000 Twitter users.
In this study, they found a variety of lessons learned about the use of Twitter during an emergency and disaster. Those within the emergency management community active in social media have long held that Twitter allows certain types of communication -- particularly during disasters-- that are not easy to do via traditional means; however, scientific analysis has been limited with anecdotal evidence receiving the lion's share of attention. That is why research from HEROIC is so interesting and applicable.
The following lessons are of the most interesting and applicable:
- Original content tends to be produced by local organizations, but is most often retweeted by non-locals
- Inclusion of URLs may show that response organizations recognize the need to have additional information available outside of Twitter (due to the limitations of 140 characters)
- Organizations should not judge attention demand for social media during non-disaster events
- Local organizations gain a large number of followers immediately after a disaster
- Highly active government organizations gain the most followers (relative to pre-disaster counts)
These types of findings in many ways validate the antecdotal observations of many users. Ultimately, emergency management organizations can significantly benefit from the use of Twitter during disasters. Be active, be engaged, and be relevant. Those are the keys to success.
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About a month ago, the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) was named in lawsuit brought by a local gun advocacy charity over Facebook posts that had been deleted by the department. The gun advocacy group claimed that HPD "arbitrarily delete[d] posts and ban[ned] those who make comments that are unfavorable to the department on the social media site". The foundation of their arguement is that HPD's Facebook page was created as an open forum to the public and therefore removal of public postings is a violation of free speech. Interestingly, the lawsuit is not seeking any monies, but simply wants HPD to change its policy and reinstate the deleted posts.
HPD's policy states that it only prohibits speech that is "obscene, sexually explicit, racially derogatory, [and] defamatory" or solicits, advertises, or suggests illegal activity. While this AP story suggests that some first amendment experts are excited to see how this falls, I think it presents a couple of interesting points.
1. While I am not a legal expert, the policy utilized by HPD seems reasonable, prudent, and in line with concepts around this issue. Much like a person is not protected if they scream "Fire!" in a theater, I think and have observed many organizations using this type of policy with a specific limitation clause to perfection.
2. It continues to show evidence that some people (including first responders and emergency managers) still look at conversation in a digital realm as different than than in a physical world. In reality, most of the general public (particularly those active on Facebook) see them as one and the same. Their Facebook posts are simply digital extensions of their own voice and personality.
3. I would be surprised if the HPD Facebook community did not self correct some of the information included in the deleted posts. Specifically, many social media systems regularly self-correct misinformation or behavior that is not inline with stated or implied rules of behavior.
While I do not know anyone at HPD or have any knowledge of how they run their social media systems, I think this is an opportunity for all organizations to not just review your policy, but also to consider how they engage their communities. Specifically, are the digital environments open, transparent and ultimately encouraging of conversation, community, and individual opinions.
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