United Kingdom

In a Disaster, Social Media #Connects

An estimated 3.2 billion people – nearly half the global population – actively use social media for networking, collaboration and sharing content. The connectivity of this diverse mix of users creates a highly-aware, engaged population with access to vast amounts of information; creating both opportunities and risks to consumer-focused services, especially in times of catastrophes when communication is key to recovery.

Social media plays a key role in improving community preparedness for the impacts of catastrophic events. The power of social media to help communities in disasters was nowhere more evident than during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 with the use of Nextdoor, a U.S. private social media platform for neighbourhoods, which broadcast calls of help in rising floodwaters and facilitated rescues from neighbours. There were also hundreds of other cases of people using Twitter and Facebook to call for assistance, even publishing their addresses because emergency services could not deal with the volume of requests. There was even a case of a mother participating in a live television interview from the roof of her house after she posted messages and videos of her situation.

These examples led Hurricane Harvey to be named “the first major natural disaster of the social media age”. Following the Christchurch earthquake back in 2011, government organisations used Twitter to post critical information, a Google Person Finder was set up to collect information about missing persons and the University of Canterbury used Facebook to organise volunteering and humanitarian aid.

Social media analytics can help

Social media platforms have been critical in distributing information about recovery and reconstruction, and identifying where the major stresses exist to focus aid efforts. There is evidence of communities having higher survival rates and greater resilience where there is active citizenship through strong local engagement – even though they received minimal assistance from government and business. As a result, many not-for-profit organisations focus on building social networks to strengthen communities, particularly in developing economies. Social media platforms play a crucial role in this success where technology permits.

The problem for businesses is how to take advantage of the high volume of complex information provided by social media. One response pioneered by the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. is a Social Media Analytics and Reporting Toolkit (SMART), which uses topic extraction, word cluster examination and unusual event detection to provide situational awareness and improve decision-making for time-critical tasks. Insurers have begun using similar social media analytics to identify fraudulent claims activity.