Fighting disasters with social media

Tuesday, 09 April, 2013

Much more can be done to use social media more effectively during crises, says Queensland academic Associate Professor Axel Bruns.

Social media is of growing importance in the response to both Australian and world crises, a national conference in Brisbane heard last week.

‘Social Media in Times of Crisis’ brought together experts in media, emergency services, crisis management and communication to discuss the role of social media in the world’s recent disasters, and how it can be enhanced.

“Following the Queensland floods in 2011, emergency services like the police, fire department and medical services have improved how they share information through Twitter or Facebook,” said conference organiser Associate Professor Axel Bruns of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“They’re making their accounts better known to the public, they’re engaging more actively with the community and are making their information easier to share or retweet.”

However, much more can be done to use social media more effectively during crises, Dr Bruns said. A start is to enlist the general public’s help in disaster response and recovery activities.

“With a series of cyclones affecting most of Queensland this summer, along with record heatwaves and major bushfires striking southern states, the nation’s emergency services are being stretched to their limits,” said Dr Bruns.

“This is where we need the general public’s help. They often share a great deal of relevant information, including situation updates, photos and videos, during an event. They can also quickly point out any inaccuracies in a report or help debunk rumours.

“So we need to develop a reliable way to source first-hand news from these users, evaluate [it] and incorporate it into the information used by emergency services.”

Another way to improve social media use during crises is to develop tools which quickly detect tweets on unusual activities, Dr Bruns said.

“For example, several people may tweet that they can smell smoke from their homes and their tweets may not contain keywords or hashtags,” he added. “However, it is crucial to identify these tweets so the emergency services can attend to it immediately. We’re currently developing tracking software that will allow us to do so.”

Dr Bruns says that using social media in disaster relief isn’t only about sending out updates to the public: “Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the gathering, evaluation and re-sharing of relevant news provided by the public as well.

“We’re still in the early stages of learning how best to use social media during crises, and we have much to discover about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to crisis communication.

“By bringing together Australia’s leading practitioners and researchers in the field, this conference will allow us to discuss current strategies, identify what we need and map out the road ahead.”

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