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Tweeting to Save the Day

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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So Superstorm Sandy comes and pretty much knocks everybody on their butts – and then what? Where to go? Shelters? Food? Which streets are open, and which are flooded? Is somebody dropping off blankets or chain saws somewhere? When?

According to Julie Macie, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina working towards a masters in technology and communications, you can’t just say, “get online and find out.” In fact, she’s doing the work to figure out exactly what should happen next, and how: she’s put a survey online  to find out what people have done with Red Cross social media during and after disasters: tornadoes? Hurricanes? Public safety emergencies? Floods, blizzards, earthquakes? Macie wants to hear about it.

She cites an amazing statistic: “Three out of four Americans expect help when they post something on Facebook or Twitter” after a disaster. That is, according to a 2012 Red Cross survey, in the aftermath of disaster, 76% of Americans expect help within three hours of posting a request on social media. And that’s without any formal program of social media response. Now of course at the moment the Red Cross keeps an eye on social media feeds during disaster response, but there’s no standard for how such a thing should work. The Red Cross, in fact, overtly tells you: call 911! They have a social media team, staffed by volunteers. But they’re no dummies, so they’re trying to figure out how to meet people where they are.

Hence Macie’s work. She’s working with the Red Cross on her project, trying to create best practices for the Red Cross about using social media during disaster response. Again – her survey takes only a few minutes and will help the Red Cross – and other agencies – figure out how best to respond to disaster on social media. Whether it’s things like “digital hugs” (volunteers doing little more than responding and saying, “gracious, that’s awful, hang in there”), or doing things like providing information about food drops and water purity and safe transportation routes, Macie is trying to figure out how agencies can get the word — and the food, and the blankets, and the responders — out faster and more efficiently.

It’s not like the Red Cross has been sitting on its hands: it’s introduced specific apps for things like hurricane preparedness shelter locations, and first-aid tips. The hurricane app even has a one-touch “I’m okay” button, a flashlight, and a siren: it’s kind of a Swiss Army cellphone.

And macie’s hardly the first person to do research on the topic: one scientist, Sarah Vieweg, found that between a twelfth and a quarter of all post-disaster tweets from people involved contained actionable information: stuff that could actually get them help.

So anyhow, take a minute (seven minutes, Macie estimates) to take the survey and help the Red Cross improve things for everybody for the next superstorm.

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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