Social Media: A Disaster Response Tool

July 23, 2013 Paul Van Winssen

On July 8, 2013 Toronto faced its worst single day of rainfall ever. Significant flooding occurred causing widespread power outages, shutting down public transit, and turning major highways into parking lots. This left thousands of commuters stranded and searching for a way to get home to their loved ones.

Since that day much has been made about smartphone-enabled on-demand driver service Uber, and its institution of surge pricing to get more drivers on the road during this crisis. Instead of calling out Uber for this, I think it’s more important to focus on the positive performance of competitor Hailo and its social media outreach during the flooding.

For those unfamiliar, Hailo is a taxicab hailing smartphone app and competitor to Uber. While Toronto was under siege from Mother Nature, Hailo took to social media. They posted breaking news concerning the weather, updates on the state of public transit, and even reached out to people stuck in less central locations to try and get them a ride home. While their competitor was mired in the beginnings of a PR nightmare, Hailo was using social media to enhance their already valuable service during this crisis. By doing so they built up their trust with the people of Toronto and potentially earned a list of new customers.

A New Disaster Response Tool

This use of social media for disaster response is by no means an isolated incident. Over the past few years disasters such as the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, the recent flooding in Calgary, and Hurricane Sandy have displayed just how powerful social media can be as a response tool. According to a recent study by the University of San Francisco’s Online Masters of Public Administration program, 76% of Americans use social media to contact friends and family during a disaster. 24% were in affected areas and used social media to let loved ones know they were safe. 37% used social media to help find supplies and shelter. It’s clear that due to its broad reach and accessible nature, social is becoming a useful disaster response tool that can help out in ways traditional resources are unable to.

The reach of social during disaster scenarios goes beyond just individual messages between loved ones. Social media is becoming a means by which government organizations and emergency response teams can distribute key information to those in duress. There is no better example of this than Hurricane Sandy, where The Red Cross had 23 staffers monitoring 2.5 million posts on social media related to the storm. They tagged 4,500 of those posts for officials to follow up on to help those in need. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) even tweeted “Phone lines may be congested during/after #Sandy. Let loved ones know you’re OK by sending a text or updating your social networks.”

Hitting Close to Home

In late June of this year, Calgary, Alberta was hit with massive rainfalls resulting in severe flooding. Many urban areas were forced to evacuate, and billions of dollars of damage was incurred. Again, social media became an important disaster response mechanism to help out many of those affected. Trends on Twitter (#yycflood in particular) developed quickly to provide up to date information on what was happening. News outlets and government officials again took to social media, with the City of Calgary, Calgary Police, and Global News Calgary each posting over 600 tweets using a hashtag related to the flood, keeping residents informed. Social listening company Marketwired has produced an extensive report outlining the social action surrounding the flooding.

In particular one hero who was praised for his social efforts during the disaster was Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi. The mayor tweeted important updates regarding the flooding, transportation issues, and associated power outages. He continually posted uplifting messages to keep up the spirits of his citizens. In doing so, the mayor enjoyed a massive influx of praise and newfound popularity. He earned over 28,000 new Twitter followers, 5.2 million impressions featuring a “Nenshi” hashtag, and ultimately the confidence of his citizens.

The Future of Disaster Response?

A few years ago, people caught in a disaster without power or means of traditional communication would have been stuck with no way to contact loved ones or get up to date information. Nowadays, social has become an almost necessary tool for the latest news, and as a method of communication. Social becomes a beacon for those stranded and in the dark, and provides a medium for the people of the world to unite and help others in a crisis. Thoughts? Share it with us in the comments.

About the Author

Paul is a social media marketer and startup enthusiast based in Toronto, Canada. He likes to traverse both the tech startup and marketing agency worlds (and everything in between). Paul divides his time equally between tech events and Blue Jays games.

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