Haiti, a small island on the Caribbean Sea, was struck by a massive 7.0 magnitude seismic upheaval. The earthquake had been traced to a location roughly 25 km to the west of the island’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Damage and destruction were widespread with more than 230,000 individuals losing their lives. More than two million people had to be evacuated. Jacmel was another port town that was severely affected during the earthquake. Many buildings with weak foundations and inadequate structural resilience ended up in dust and rubble.
Diverse disaster recovery groups, agencies and associations from all over the world were mobilized and connected with each other through social media in a truly global disaster management effort. Rescue, response and recovery efforts were in operation 24/7. Aid was provided onsite as well as from remote locations. These emergency management efforts included reaching out for charitable contributions, managing the logistics of supplying relief material, coordinating the deployment of resources, equipment and so on.
Since this was a catastrophe on a massive scale that erupted suddenly, taking everyone by surprise, the first stage of disaster recovery**,** namely response, mainly involved gathering the necessary inputs to generate damage analysis reports and locate victims in order to strategize a relief plan accordingly. The local community reached out to the world for aid primarily through mobile applications, online platforms, social media and SMS, marking a milestone in the evolution of disaster management response strategies.
The call for help received massive support online through social media from around the world. Virtual volunteers received, converted into other languages and transmitted critical messages and information on a global scale, garnering aid from all quarters. It was after the relief efforts during the earthquake in Haiti (a small country with relatively limited resources and capital, not to mention technology and state of the art infrastructure) that many nations, including the USA and Canada, seriously started considering the scope and prospects of social media emergency management. Societal resilience was also identified as an undeniable benefit. The possibilities for enhancing relief efforts in developed nations were endless.
Emergency management related response efforts created a confluence of diverse groups who had a stake in the situation. This included:
Disaster affected local population
Regional and overseas emergency management solution providers
Humanitarian groups and NGOs
Official, government employed rescue teams
Volunteers with an online presence
Friends, families and relatives of affected people
Some of the stakeholders had a framework of reference for action thanks to past collaborations on similar relief efforts. However, information sharing protocols evolved organically and spontaneously without any prior planning. The vast amounts of data that came in torrents exposed inadequacies in information filtering and processing capabilities. And many response emergency management solution providers who were in the thick and thin of action didn’t have access to the information coming in through social media channels.
Virtual volunteers were better equipped in this regard and were quickly able to adapt to the situation. Messages, content and information were consolidated, translated, mapped and transmitted at a rapid pace. Nevertheless, there were no formally established communication pathways for information sharing between online volunteer groups and traditional emergency solution providers .
The excess of information with limited sorting, filtering and processing capabilities was often made worse by additional information coming in from non-conventional sources. But there were also instances when carefully orchestrated information coordination mechanisms between online volunteer groups and traditional emergency management solution providers created a wellspring of valuable information that complemented relief efforts the conventional rescue squads were implementing.
A lot also depended on trust and mutual understanding between the parties involved as questioning the authenticity of information being shared would have resulted in serious conflicts and wastage of time and effort. As a matter of fact, conventional disaster recovery teams were fairly reluctant to include volunteering personnel in their tasks despite the latter group’s eagerness and enthusiasm as the information these volunteer groups provided could not always be adequately validated as reliable.
Although damage during the earthquake was widespread, most of the cell towers in Haiti continued working. As a result, affected location populations could send out an endless stream of rescue pleas to emergency management solution providers through messages, Twitter, Facebook and wiki-links .
Many widely used volunteer run information management systems with free, open-source software came to the forefront by enhancing information sharing capabilities. This proved vital for DR effectiveness. The local population as well as official disaster recovery units was kept informed and up to date through geo-spatial situational awareness, although with a few limitations.
Too much information
Disparities in delivery of actionable information
Shortcomings in data processing due to multiple standards
One main challenge regarding the use of social media in emergency management was the lack of a common interface or data standard that could sync with the systems used by traditional emergency management teams. This was the main reason why all the valuable intelligence generated by the virtual volunteer community through collation, analysis and mapping techniques, could not be integrated with the data in the traditional response systems.
Considering the mammoth scale on which emergency efforts had to be executed, data mapping and visualization proved vital. Emergency management solution providers made situational awareness possible through geo-tagged crowd sourcing in real time. This in turn helped identify the actionable needs for each location and consequently, their corresponding targeted response. Official teams found these tools and techniques useful as older maps of Haiti quickly became outdated due to modifications in the landscape and terrain after the earthquake.
Surprisingly, some cloud-based technologies like web portals failed to make an impact during the Haiti earthquake . This was due to too many file dumps along with the lack of a common consolidated picture. Additionally, people still had to manually go through files in order to collect data and compile situational awareness reports. Wiki documents met with a lot more success as they are created in a collaborative manner.
Despite technological advances, there is still a dearth of automation capabilities. Data aggregation and verification are still done manually. Generating context specific intelligence through social media emergency management still requires manual consolidation, analysis and filtering of information. This is clearly an opportunity area that should be exploited.
The following case study describes the implementation of social media emergency management techniques during the earthquake that occurred in Haiti on the 12th of January, 2010. The strategies employed in disaster recovery measures have been segregated along the two main dimensions – People, and Technology.
Read the above case study and reflect on its implications as it teaches widely dispersed business organizations what to do in the event of an untoward event.
Are there lessons that you have gathered from this reading that you may wish to share with a colleague first, and later with your class?