Embracing Social Media

Mar 15, 2010

After the earthquake struck Haiti, my colleague, Andrew Fielden, and I worked with our partners at Igloo Software to put a wisdom-sharing community online. We called it The Crisis Kitchen because we believed the best way to share ideas, opinions and pragmatic pearls of wisdom is in a warm and inviting kitchen – real or metaphysical. Thus, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working as a sous-chef in The Crisis Kitchen.

My work here has been at turns heartbreaking, gratifying and extremely frustrating. We tried to connect-the-dots at the 50,000-foot level in order to get help to the most organizations and agencies which could, in turn, get help to the most people on the ground. We see numerous messages like the following: “We are in desperate need of getting diesel for our generators and vehicle.” “10-15 people in need of critical medical attention...” “next to what remains of our house...”

Guy Corriveau, my personal candidate for Lead Chef and one of the top emergency managers in Canada, said it best, “The Crisis Kitchen has state of the art appliances, all the necessary tools, and a fully-stocked pantry. It’s definitely a place where ‘chefs’ from Canada, the US, and other nations can converge to build whatever recipes they may have in mind.”

As director of the National Emergency Management Resource Center (NEMRC), I used a similar model that incorporated network quilting to receive/ triage/transmit information during Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks in Mumbai, India. The idea was to provide capability to request resources and respond to those requests in a streamlined fashion – while flowing a multi-channel stream of meaningful information to members of the emergency management community.

Some emergency managers have been slow to embrace social media as part of a new reality. It is as if they are migrating between stages in a grieving cycle linked to the proliferation of social media. It’s true that we are confronted with the reality that our position in society is, indeed, in flux. Organizational change is usually measured in multiples of years. How do we create an integration/engagement strategy for a phenomenon evolving at an exponential pace?

One of the key elements to successfully integrating social media technology into emergency operations is, quite simply, trust. How does one build that trust? Credible information is key.

By tapping social media and by leveraging the wisdom of crowds, there comes the potential for a spectacular mix of views, opinions and factors from which we can draw down on our own intelligent situational awareness. One of the most striking advantages that comes with social media is the ability to interact with the crowds – to provide guidance on what kind of nuggets [credibility] you need to be fishing for at that moment in time – or more importantly, for the next several moments in time.

Retired Canadian Forces Colonel Richard Moreau teaches a serious ‘leadership in ­crisis’ program that emphasizes the need for intelligent awareness. According to Moreau, if you don’t provide guidance on what you’re looking for, don’t be surprised when your intel crews come back excitedly proclaiming, “We’ve got cod! We’ve got cod!”

At some point, you have to explain that you were looking for swordfish.

I understand the hesitancy I hear from colleagues trying to get their heads around the concept of integrating social media into their emergency operations. Social media is a networking enabler not unlike what they’ve been doing for years in backyard gatherings and after-meeting networking sessions. With a bit of creativity and imagination, social media technology can be used to strengthen cross-disciplinary relationships, accelerate response, provide decision support and harness mission-critical resources when they are most needed.

Hal Newman is the Executive Director of NEMRC (the National Emergency Manage­ment Resource Center) www.nemrc.net He is also a Managing Partner at TEMS. Visit: www.tems.ca
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