Leveraging the Power of the Web to Save Lives

April 11, 2011
By Helen Mosher, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

Twitter and Facebook are just a few of the tools being used to facilitate international collaboration to address logistical issues in disaster relief.

An exercise in leveraging social media for humanitarian assistance and disaster response fostered global participation last month, with more than 39,000 people from 94 nations tuning in to a simulation of two seismic events and a tsunami set in the Adriatic Sea. Participants in the exercise used tools such as Twitter and Facebook to create a rich, real-time environment for crowd-sourcing solutions and other collaborative activities.
The X24 series is the most recent one of several examining low-cost collaborative solutions that address the mission requirements of the different entities involved in crisis response, says Dr. George Bressler, Director of Operational Exercises, X24 Europe. The simulation explored the consequences of two large seismic events and their related tsunami directly affecting Southern Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia.

This model of information-sharing and collaboration started some time ago with complex exercises involving state, local, federal and tribal resources in California. Through several exercises and some real-time events, including the 2007 wildfires, it became apparent to planners that traditional command and control was not effective for major disasters. “We’re looking to generate a common relevance picture rather than a common operational picture,” Bressler explains. “That is, we want to create a picture of information that has relevance to the different entities that are involved. Through these off-the-shelf tools, we can target resources to the need and minimize overlap of skill sets.”

The next step was to investigate how to share information with international counterparts, especially where a disaster on a shared border could affect continuity of trade and societal normalcy in the region. As different people signed on to the project and word began to spread, Bressler states, his role shifted from program director to social director. “I was just making sure that people were communicating well, so they could articulate their intent in the exercise in a way that the other entities could understand it,” he says of the rapid evolution. The open invitation construct, as he describes it, transitioned X24 from an original 20 people from five agencies to a much larger phenomenon. X24 Europe is the latest iteration, arising out of interest from EUCOM to develop an exercise for the Balkans region.   

With key resources and critical infrastructure affected, participants used Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, crowdmapping and discussion groups to explore challenges in command, control, communications and other logistical areas. Social media can play a key role in disaster relief by allowing people to update in real time with a great deal of granularity, allowing for a trust and verification system involving data flowing in from these services.

“Who knows better what’s going on in an affected area than the people that live there?” asks Bressler.  “If someone says [on social media], ‘I have a problem here,’ we can plot that on a map with GPS coordinates.” As more of those posts are plotted, a picture of the problem then begins to emerge. “If a thousand people say the bridge is out, and two people say it’s not, those two people are either confused or looking at a different bridge,” he continues.

In addition, social media allows for personal relationships to develop among entities, speeding the amount of time it takes to share critical information. “It’s not big corporation talking to NORTHCOM saying they have assistance and whom do they need to talk to,” Bressler says. “It’s me, George, talking to you, Bill, about this information I have. With the blink of an eye, it’s ‘Yes!’ and then, ‘How?’”

The no-fault environment also means that people can brainstorm or introduce untested solutions. “It might be the thing we need to save lives during the next crisis,” Bressler asserts. “You don’t have to wait for the [situation report] to go through the pachinko machine and land on someone’s desk.”

Another group focused on language barriers, which could present numerous challenges for a disaster event in a multinational area such as the Balkans region. In addition to the complications this presents for humanitarian responders from different countries, effective information-gathering through open channels also is affected: A peek at the Twitter stream at one point in the exercise yielded hundreds of Tweets tagged #X24Europe in numerous languages.

More X24 events are in the works. Visit http://24.inrelief.org/ for more information about X24 Europe and about future simulations.

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