Monday, February 6, 2012

Social Media - A life saving innovation that's more than just a toy!

In my recent book, Living in the Innovation Age, I discussed how Social Media tools such as Twitter and Facebook have been used with great success in the non profit sector to save countless lives in the face of natural disasters such as earthquakes.

For example, last year when Japan was hit by massive earthquakes, both Twitter and Google’s online Person Finder tool gave aid organizations a method to gather information about the disaster and correct any misinformation on the Web.

Another example that I discussed in my book is Ushahidi, which has helped save many lives in
disaster struck areas such as Haiti and Chile. The origins of Ushahidi can be traced back to 2008, while Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh was covering the post-election violence in Kenya and she blogged, "Any techies out there willing to do a mash up of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?" Within days, two such techies wrote software code for an open-source, Web-based platform that would come to be known as Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili. Ushahidi provides volunteers information collected from a variety of sources that include text messages, blog posts, videos, phone calls, and pictures, all mapped in near real time. Over 10,000 Haitian-American volunteers across the United States translated every text message from Creole to English within 10 minutes. The result of this innovation has been nothing short of spectacular with countless precious lives saved.

Now, it seems that we have yet another convert.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also using information gathered from social media monitoring to help improve its effectiveness in responding to natural disasters. On February 3, 2012 at an event hosted by the State Department called Tech@State, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate conceded that "While official assessments are more thorough, speed is more important than precision." He likened disasters to horseshoes, hand grenades and thermo nuclear devices in which you just have to be close. In his words "You won't get that time back...speed in response is the most perishable commodity in a disaster."

Over the past few years FEMA has been heavily citicized especially following its sluggish response following Hurricane Katrina. Many have claimed that FEMA failed miserably because it spent the precious first 12 to 24 hours after the disaster getting teams into the area to make an assessment and send information back to headquarters rather than taking the desperately needed life-saving action.

Compare and constrast that to how FEMA responded when tornadoes ripped through Joplin, Missouri in May 2011 in which FEMA correctly realized that it had enough information, even if it was imperfect, from Twitter and Facebook to suggest that the situation was dire and immediately start taking remediating action.

The bottom line is that social media is becoming an increasingly important way for aid organizations to quickly assess, mobilize appropriate resources, and rapidly respond to disasters helping them save countless lives.

Now that's way cool! :)

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