Social Media and Emergency Management

I’m married to an EMT who would prefer to live off the land in Maine somewhere, so survival and emergency planning are frequent topics of conversation in my house. And whenever an emergency situation of any sort comes up around the world, like the riots in London, we talk about it, the response of the authority (or lack thereof) to it, and how we think we would respond to it.

Part of that discussion, for me, always involves social media. Twitter especially but almost every web application you can think of has impacted how emergencies of all kinds around the world play out. For example, the Metropolitan Police in London are using Flickr to crowdsource the identification of suspects involved in the rioting. In May, representatives from FEMA attended a Senate hearing on the use of social media in emergency situations – which is pretty forward thinking for the Senate in my opinion.

That’s not to say social media has replaced traditional methods of emergency communications – I’m terrified that people could think to tweet instead of call 911 for example – but, as it has in so many ways, social media is augmenting what we already do and opening up channels of communication. Which is a good and important thing: the more people who receive information from the CDC, and the more people who provide information about the situation on the ground back to the CDC, for example, the better.

Thinking about social media in this light creates an interesting juxtaposition between the life-saving usefulness during an emergency situation of the same intrusive technologies we worry about. Take, for example, the use of Google Earth as an emergency response viewer, instead of as a creepy way for Google to catalog images of your neighborhood.

The social web is new territory and our expectations and definitions of privacy are changing as we explore it. Does posting a suspect’s face on Flickr presume guilt instead of innocence, for example?

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