Natural disasters appear set to be a frequent phenomenon in Queensland and the rest of Australia over the coming years. From the devastating south east Queensland floods in 2011 to this summer’s series of cyclones affecting most of the state, from record heatwaves to the major bushfires striking southern states, emergency services and related agencies are being stretched to their limits and barely have a chance to catch their breath between disasters any more.
It is becoming all the more important, therefore, to involve the general public in disaster response and recovery activities where it is safe and sensible to do so. In the first place, this relates to the dissemination of information about the current disaster situation, where - in addition to conventional channels including television and local radio - online media play an increasingly important role.
Secondly, such media can also be instrumental in coordinating community-led responses to major disaster events - as demonstrated by the spontaneously organised army of clean-up volunteers following the 2011 floods, or the Baked Relief initiative which provided free home-cooked food to many of these volunteers.
Mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly seen as a key component in emergency services’ crisis communication toolkit, therefore. The Queensland Police Service’s Media Unit has received national and international praise for its use of such tools, and my colleagues and I at the ARC Centre for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI) have documented just how successful their @QPSMedia Twitter account was at keeping Queenslanders informed about the 2011 floods. (See http://cci.edu.au/floodsreport.pdf for our full report.)
But more still can and must be done to develop our emergency services’ social media skills and capabilities. Strategies for disseminating information effectively, and for engaging with social media users to ensure that they contribute productively to this dissemination effort, must continue to be updated as the general uses of these platforms themselves change; from reviewing the use of social media in recent events in Australia and elsewhere we can learn much about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to crisis communication in social media spaces.
Even less developed are our processes for sourcing first-hand information from social media users. What is already evident is that such information can be highly valuable, especially in large-scale disasters during which the authorities struggle to generate a picture of the local situation that is at once detailed and comprehensive. Social media users share a great deal of situationally relevant information - as text updates, photos, and videos - from disaster areas, so much so that the US Geological Survey has begun to explore the use of social media data as another tool for the early detection of earthquake events. We have yet to develop reliable tools and methods which enable us to evaluate and fully incorporate social media data into the range of information sources used by emergency services during times of crisis, however.
Two years after the first such event, which discussed the experience of the south east Queensland floods, a national conference on Social Media in Times of Crisis will be held at the State Library of Queensland on 4 April. Organised by the Eidos Institute in collaboration with Queensland University of Technology, and kicking off a three-year research project which also involves the Queensland Department of Community Safety, the event brings together leading practitioners and researchers to current strategies for using social media in crisis communication and map out the road ahead. More information is available from http://eidos.org.au/.