Social media represent a relatively new and still rapidly evolving phenomenon, and their application to alerts, warnings, and other aspects of emergency management is still in its infancy. But there is much current interest in the use of social media because they have been embraced by a large segment of the population and because they enable new, two-way interactions among those affected by and responding to disasters. To date, formal study of the use of social media in disasters has been limited (Box 6.1 explores the state of research on the use of social media in emergency management), and there are many outstanding questions about how they can be used most effectively by emergency managers and other public officials, organizations, communities, and individuals.
The following sections outline research opportunities and associated implementation challenges identified by the committee and workshop attendees during the plenary and breakout sessions of the workshop. The opportunities and challenges compiled here from presentations and discussions at the workshop do not reflect a consensus of the committee or the workshop participants, nor are they intended to be a comprehensive list of research questions.
A significant body of past research has considered what types of messages and communications strategies are most effective for alerting the public with traditional emergency alerting tools like broadcast radio
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6 Research Gaps and Implementation Challenges S ocial media represent a relatively new and still rapidly evolving p henomenon, and their application to alerts, warnings, and other aspects of emergency management is still in its infancy. But there is much current interest in the use of social media because they have been embraced by a large segment of the population and because they enable new, two-way interactions among those affected by and responding to disasters. To date, formal study of the use of social media in disasters has been limited (Box 6.1 explores the state of research on the use of social media in emergency management), and there are many outstanding ques- tions about how they can be used most effectively by emergency managers and other public officials, organizations, communities, and individuals. The following sections outline research opportunities and associated implementation challenges identified by the committee and workshop attendees during the plenary and breakout sessions of the workshop. The opportunities and challenges compiled here from presentations and dis- cussions at the workshop do not reflect a consensus of the committee or the workshop participants, nor are they intended to be a comprehensive list of research questions. MESSAGE CONTENT AND DISSEMINATION A significant body of past research has considered what types of messages and communications strategies are most effective for alerting the public with traditional emergency alerting tools like broadcast radio 49
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50 PUBLIC RESPONSE TO ALERTS AND WARNINGS USING SOCIAL MEDIA BOX 6.1 State of Research on Social Media in Emergency Management In her remarks at the February 2012 workshop on alerts and warnings using social media, Leysia Palen of the University of Colorado, Boulder, discussed the evolving application of social media for emergency management and the associated stages of research maturity. She suggested that growing interest in examining the role of social media reflects in part the progress that has been made toward their adoption, and that research together with learning from the practical application of social media will increase understanding of both pos- sibilities and pitfalls and thus foster greater, more effective use. From roughly 2008 to 2011 was a period in which the potential for using social media was first recognized and was marked by scattered grassroots ex- perimentation, said Palen. In this first stage, publications by practitioners and researchers, workshops, and discussion developed a case that social media would inevitably play an important role in emergency management, although just how was unclear. Not all embraced the new technologies. Some felt that the use of social media was simply a passing fad, and even as late as 2011 otherwise knowledgeable people remained fearful about social-media-abetted change and sought to understand how social media could be “held back.” Still others embraced the trend but did not fully understand its grassroots and spontane- ous nature; one result was attempts to shape it in order to gain commercial or tactical advantage. Indications abound that both practice and research have since yielded sig- nificant advances, observed Palen. Local emergency managers are experiment- ing with how to incorporate social media into their daily practices, for example, and the American Red Cross has incorporated certified volunteers into its social media response plans. Formal policy discussions are being held worldwide. and television.1 Comparatively little research has examined similar ques- tions for messages disseminated via social media.2 One of social media’s 1 National Research Council. Public Response to Alerts and Warnings on Mobile Devices: Sum- mary of a Workshop on Current Knowledge and Research Gaps. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011. 2 Research that has been done in this area includes Kate Starbird, Leysia Palen, Amanda Hughes, and Sarah Vieweg, Chatter on the red: What hazards threat reveals about the so- cial life of microblogged information, Proceedings of the ACM 2010 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2010), pp. 241-250, 2010; Kate Starbird and Leysia Palen, Pass it on?: Retweeting in mass emergencies, Proceedings of the Conference on Information Sys- tems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM 2010), Seattle, Wash., 2010; Leysia Palen, Sarah Vieweg, Sophia Liu, and Amanda Hughes, Crisis in a networked world: Features of computer-mediated communication in the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech event, Social Science Computing Review, Sage, pp. 467-480, 2009; and Clarence Wardell and Yee San Su, Social Media + Emergency Management Camp: Transforming the Response Enterprise, 2011, available at http:// www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/SMEM_Report.pdf.
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RESEARCH GAPS AND IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGES 51 particular strengths, that messages can be widely shared, also presents challenges because messages can be readily altered as they are spread. In addition, messages that may no longer be accurate can continue to propa- gate through social media long after they are no longer current. Their interactive nature makes social media useful as a medium for both receiv- ing and confirming disaster information, which suggests opportunities to reduce the gap between the time individuals receive disaster information and when they take action. Some specific research questions include the following: • How should broadcast messages from emergency managers be crafted in light of the limitations (e.g., short message lengths) and strengths (e.g., opportunities to include images, maps, and URLs) pre- sented by social media? • How much of the word-of-mouth dissemination of information about disasters occurs through social media? Are there ways of designing messages that could increase the speed and breadth of their spread? • How are messages altered as they are spread through social net- works? How might messages be formulated to discourage or reduce the impact of these changes? • What strategies and techniques can be applied to deal with mes- sages that have “aged” to the point that they are no longer relevant? • What types of messages and strategies would reduce the time lag before individuals take action (i.e., reduce milling time)? • What challenges or opportunities will social media present in reaching unique populations such as non-English speakers or individu- als with disabilities? TRUST AND CREDIBILITY In addition to sharing and commenting on messages they receive, citizens often use social media to share firsthand text, image, and video reports about disasters. This firsthand information can be useful for deci- sion making by emergency officials as well as other individuals but raises questions about how to assess its trustworthiness. The nature of social media suggests the possibility for self-correcting information by combin- ing reports supplied by many individuals provided that the number of reports is sufficiently large. Some specific research questions include the following: • How do consumers of social media messages distinguish credible from less credible information? How can emergency managers and other officials create and disseminate messages that have high credibility?
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52 PUBLIC RESPONSE TO ALERTS AND WARNINGS USING SOCIAL MEDIA • What are practical ways that officials can evaluate and signal the credibility of unofficial messages during an event? • What are the relationships between the number and density of social media users or the size of an event and the effectiveness of mecha- nisms for self-correcting information users supply? • What mechanisms and approaches foster such self-correction? • What are effective strategies officials can use to intercede when misinformation is proliferated via social media? PRIVACY The use of social media for alerts and warnings raises privacy issues that were not in play with traditional methods of sending alerts and warn- ings. For example, the social media communications being monitored by government officials, while technically public, may have been sent with certain expectations of privacy such as that they would not be read by government officials. Some specific research questions include the following: • How, if at all, do people differentiate the privacy implications of message monitoring by government agencies, by commercial entities, and by the general public during disasters versus at other times? • It has been suggested that people are willing to accept reduced privacy safeguards during disasters. What are people’s actual attitudes in these circumstances? • How might the government’s use of social media be adjusted dur- ing disasters? For example, are there mechanisms that could be used to trigger monitoring when a disaster begins? What safeguards could be established to ensure that people have full control of adjustment to and reactivation of privacy settings? • Is widespread adoption of social media, which relies on users sharing information about themselves, altering the privacy expectations of users of social media? What are the implications for the use of social media during disasters? VOLUNTEERS Social media have enabled the emergence of online groups of volun- teers to respond to disasters. Some of these groups, such as the Standby Task Force and Humanity Road, have evolved from ad hoc groups to more structured volunteer organizations that designate individuals responsible
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RESEARCH GAPS AND IMPLEMENTATION CHALLENGES 53 for coordinating response activities. These more formal groups as well as spontaneously formed groups help curate disaster information from social media and other sources and use social media to provide relevant information to both official responders and the affected population. Some specific research questions include the following: • What organizational theory provides an understanding of how ad hoc volunteer organizations form, function, and evolve—and what the implications are for disaster management? • Although official first responders in government and nongovern- ment organizations have had training to deal with emergency situations, most ad hoc volunteers have not. Are there ways that social media can be used to make the efforts of ad hoc volunteers more effective? • How do legal and policy concerns constrain the interactions of volunteers with formal emergency managers? What measures might be taken to address these concerns? • What are points of cooperation and tension between officials and volunteers? TECHNOLOGY DIFFUSION Several instances of technologies that could have immediate applica- tion for disaster management were discussed during the workshop, such as support for visualization of information derived from social media. However, it was also evident that there were relatively few points of engagement between researchers developing or investigating new tools and emergency managers and other potential end users. Emergency man- agers are most likely to encounter new technologies only when such tools are made available by vendors. Given the rapid pace of change in social media and the associated rapid pace of change in tools for using social media, workshop participants suggested that more rapid and effective technology transfer would be valuable. Some specific research questions include the following: • Are there emerging best practices for how social media can be used effectively by emergency managers? • How can diffusion of available technologies be promoted? What are the special characteristics of the emergency management community that limit the adoption of new technologies and techniques, and how might such characteristics be addressed? • How can the growing body of knowledge on how users behave in online communities be transferred to emergency management practices?
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54 PUBLIC RESPONSE TO ALERTS AND WARNINGS USING SOCIAL MEDIA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PRACTICE Although the rate of adoption of social media and the sophistication of their use by emergency managers vary considerably, it does appear that emergency managers have come to generally appreciate the potential value of social media. However, workshop participants cited a number of barriers that still exist to the effective use of social media in the practice of emergency management. These barriers stem in no small part from an incomplete understanding, as discussed above, of how to use social media in disasters and the relative newness of the medium. Some specific challenges include the following: • Limited knowledge about information-sharing techniques and col- lection of information; • Limited staff plus budget challenges that create barriers to using social media for situational awareness; • Lack of policies and discussion about the use of social media for dissemination of alerts and warnings and for situational awareness; and • Concerns about potential liabilities that are created when new technology is introduced, specifically with respect to fair representation of victims’ needs and the distribution of resources.