Citizen-led crisis communications face Hurricane Sandy head-on
What information would you need to protect yourself during a natural disaster? How would you let others know of potential dangers caused by floods, fallen trees, or damaged buildings? Crisis communications responses to the recent Hurricane Sandy disaster provide an insight into how local residents of smart cities are sharing information as part of an emergency communications network.
What information do local neighborhoods need before, during and after a natural disaster? The UN’s Disaster Preparedness List of Indicators is fairly useless in helping define the nuts and bolts of what information can make a difference to people’s lives. That charter speaks more of the broad need for citizens to be trained in data systems and for there to be an information network in place, but shies away from mentioning what sort of information can help people build resilience in the face of disaster.
For New York, people needed to know:
- What public transport is operating
- What areas are evacuated and where to find a relative who lives in an evacuation zone
- Where to eat during power blackouts
- What roads and transport routes are too dangerous to use
- What community services are open?
- How best to get a business back up and running after the hurricane.
Hurricane Sandy hit New York from October 26, the week before the national elections. This meant that in addition to the usual crisis communications information, last minute polling booths needed to be established and residents informed of how they could still vote when the original voting sites were no longer operational.
The election timing may have been a boon to support for US Federal funding of infrastructure for a smart city emergency communications network. Industry site sensys reports a new cooperative policy culture emerged from the Federal level down to the local. Petty turf boundaries were superseded by a new recognition that a timely and effective assessment and disaster response could be cultivated from well-coordinated geospatial information coupled with crowd-sourced data such as social media and home-made video.
Emergency communications network tools and maps
The New York Times created a number of data visualizations and information management aids to support local residents stay informed. This included a map of all Hurricane Sandy-related deaths and regularly updated data on:
- Subways and Buses
- Power Failures
- Tunnels, Trains and Airports
- Latest alerts, NYC Emergency Mgmt
- City of New York on Twitter
- NYC Emergency Mgmt on Facebook
- WNYC Transit Tracker
- NYC.gov information
- Damage Assessments and Power Info
- Volunteer Opportunities
- Sandy-related YouTube videos
- Senior services
- Shelters and recovery centers
The philanthropic-funded Crisis Mapping project managed by Google Emergency Response Team also produced a map with feeds from government bodies, the city’s open data platform and community-based social media conversations. A New York City map showed weather details and could be filtered to show any number of data sources including:
- NYC food distribution points
- Red Cross shelters
- NYC evacuation centers
- FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers
- Road Conditions
- Emergency Alerts
- Local emergency Twitter feeds
- Public Alerts
- Weather radar (precipitation)
- Weather and observations[/bullets]
Following the crisis, a nearby city authority Fairfax County in Vermont published a metrics report showing how local citizens made use of emergency response data. For example, their blog jumped to 384,651 views with just over 600 comments during the storm, and 111 local residents shared hyperlocal information for a crowdsourced crisis map detailing power failures, road hazards, and location of volunteer resources. This map was viewed by over 12,000 residents during the days of the storm and the weeks following.
The next steps for citizen-participation in crisis communications
While there was a high level of community mobilization in sharing information during the hurricane, observers from the iDisaster website, which tracks the use of social media as an emergency management tool, made the following recommendations to support more active citizen engagement in future:
- Organizations should plan how to redirect calls for assistance and information requests that may come through via social media channels. Trying to educate citizens about not using twitter to ask for emergency assistance needs to give way to creating a system in which citizens’ calls for helps could be directed from wherever they come from.
- Community members should be trained up as Virtual Operations Support Team volunteers to assist with responding to the influx of social media requests at key local authority and emergency management services.
- Communicators need to package information so that it can be accessed in bite-size chunks on mobile devices by local residents needing to be kept informed.
- Emergency shelters and resource centers need to make it easy for people to recharge their mobile phones, as this was how local citizens accessed up to date information and shared warnings for others via social media.
What you can do in your city
- Ask your local emergency management services to start up a volunteer social media support team program to enlist local citizens in helping with crisis communications during an emergency like Hurricane Sandy.
- Start collecting different mobile phone recharger cables and donate them to your local Red Cross or other body responsible for providing recovery shelters during crises.
- Train yourself or members of your local community group in how to make short videos showing a city problem like a road blockage or overflowing drain, so that citizens can help feed in hyperlocal crisis communications information.
- Check out the Google Crisis Maps and Ushahadi community-created maps. Who should take responsibility for coordinating this element of an emergency communications network like this in your city?