Hearing those digital cries for help

The Emergency Social Data Summit will look at online platforms as tools for collective action and crisis response.

New research from the Red Cross shows that online, people increasingly rely on social media to seek help in a disaster. As ReadWriteWeb reported, the Red Cross survey found that 74 percent of social media users expect help within an hour.

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010

Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., the Red Cross will convene an Emergency Social Data Summit, bringing together representatives from the White House, technologists, first responders, non-governmental communities, and citizens to “address how to reply to these digital cries for help more effectively.”

What’s at the heart of this phenomenon? Simply put, the Internet is helping disaster response evolve — and quickly. In the video below, NPR’s senior social strategist, Andy Carvin talks about how people all over the world are collaborating to help in crisis.

After the jump, learn more about the summit, the power of platforms for collective action, and the rising adhocracy that empowers citizens to help one another online.

Convening the Emergency Social Data Summit

The agenda includes Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, @WhiteHouse‘s Macon Phillips, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate>, uberblogger Robert Scoble, podcamper Christopher Penn, CrisisCommonsHeather Blanchard and Noel Dickover, Ushahidi‘s Patrick Meier and dozens of others who have been involved in disaster response using social media, including myself.
Beth Kanter, a noted authority on “networked nonprofits” and social media, wrote about the emergency social dataevent on her blog.

In January, after the Haiti earthquake struck, if you were participating on social networks, you couldn’t help but notice the many, many Tweets and Facebook status messages about the Haiti earthquake.   The messages included pleas for support or retweeting the news, but beyond that the stream included pleas from people on the ground in Haiti asking for emergency assistance or letting loved ones and friends know they’re okay.

Social media has radically changed how people communicate, including their calls for help. As we have seen in natural disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the Chile earthquake, people are using social media to reach out for help. And they expect a response from emergency and disaster response organizations. To meet this growing challenge, the American Red Cross is launching an initiative to address how to reply to these digital cries for help more effectively.

Kanter’s company Zoetica, and co-founders Geoff Livingston and Kami Huyse , have been working with the Red Cross on the summit for months.
As Kanter pointed out, this initiative includes more than hosting the Emergency Social Data Summit itself, with an accompanying backchannel on Twitter on the #crisisdata hashtag.

As has been the case for the disaster communications, “the Summit will use both established and more experimental social media tools and platforms to involve people who are not in the room in the discussion,” wrote Kanter. Along with Twitter, those tools include:

Kanter described it as “a geo location crowdsourced storytelling application. Conference attendees will have the opportunity to join an “Emergency Data Society,” on the service, which Kanter said “will facilitate a self-organized, community scrapbook of the event from attendees.”

The power of crisis response platforms

The Red Cross has posted the first three chapters of a white paper based on the Summit’s themes at the emergency social data blog, including the case for integrating crisis response with social media, how social media has changed news gathering during disaster response, and the crisis collaboration movement, which documents the growth of Crisis Commons from camps in 2009 to a globally distributed platform. All three of these posts are thorough investigations of a shift from a citizenry limited by a broadcast model and disaster fatigue to an empowered, participatory public. When combined, they make up the first half of a white paper, “The Case for Integrating Crisis Response With Social Medi,” which is embedded below:

White Paper: The Case for Integrating Crisis Response With Social Media

I’m humbled to have contributed to documenting the first Crisis Camp Haiti and subsequent efforts this spring and summer, and to have attended the first international Crisis Congress. As aspirations translated to code, a movement of “geeks without borders spread around the globe. More recently, responding to the Gulf oil spill, Crisis Commons delivered Oil Reporter, an open data initiative that provided a “suite of tools and resources that encourages response organizations to capture and share data with the public.”

The energy, passion and innovation that collectively drive Crisis Commons are possible because we’re in a unique historical moment. Hundreds of millions of people online can see disasters like the Haiti earthquake unfold on the real-time Web. Unlike the natural disasters or man-made crises of the past, however, citizens, government, media and developers can now do more to help those affected, whether by mobile donations, crisis mapping, timely tweets or random hacks of kindness.

Given the scope of the crises that humanity faces, the power of social software to empower citizens is of critical interest to many constituencies. After tomorrow’s summit concludes, I’ll be looking forward to hearing about making states work better from Clare Lockhart, Steve Killelea and Ory Okolloh at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington.

The challenges, successes, and opportunities presented by new platforms for civic engagement and empowerment call into question recent reports of crowdsourcing losing steam. The increasing use of online platforms for civic engagement as platforms for civic empowerment hints at what might be possible in the future, as more sophisticated tools are developed for an increasingly connected humanity. After Haiti, collaborative action between government, developers, citizens, and NGOs is no longer an academic theory: it’s a proud art of our history. The “adhocracy” that Alvin Toffler presciently described in 1970 has come to be through the power of networks. To put the power of that possibility in perspective, here’s Tim O’Reilly speaking at OSCON:

And here’s Andy Carvin’s talk and slides on The New Volunteers: Social Media, Disaster Response And You:

I hope you’ll tune in to the Emergency Social Data Summit tomorrow.

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