Wanting to do more than follow the relief efforts remotely and or to give donations that would be used in unknown ways, this motley crew of volunteers, some of whom had bused in from neighboring states, wanted to make on-the-ground tangible impacts.
So they turned to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, online tools that promote community information sharing, to connect with folks managing community relief efforts—or sometimes directly with the people in need—to find opportunities to help.
The Staten Island crew, for example, spent the day helping with simple, but far-reaching tasks, ranging from sorting and delivering supplies, walking people through the paperwork for federal and state aid, to sometimes just listening to folks tell their stormy stories. Leading the charge was not the traditional emergency management suspects—FEMA or the Red Cross—but the grassroots Occupy Sandy Staten Island chapter.
Communities are always the “first responders” to disasters, says Matt Stempeck, a graduate student at MIT who studies digital humanitarianism. Social media can enhance these local-run efforts, drawing upon an army of interested volunteers mulling around on the internet.
Utilizing the preexisting network of Occupy Wall Street, a community-based social justice movement that formed in September 2011, the Occupy Sandy movement started during the throes of the storm.
Already at least thirty-eight neighborhoods across New York and New Jersey have benefited from Occupy Sandy efforts. This is because Occupy Sandy excels at using social media to mobilize. “The right people to the right places,” says Daphne Carr, a communications correspondent for Occupy Sandy Staten Island. This kind of organized “person-to-person help can only happen on social networks. There is no other way,” says Kim Stephens, a crisis communications consultant and blogger.
The most popular social media platforms for official and self-run emergency management efforts reflect the most popular tools used in everyday life: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram, says Kate Starbird, a crisis communications researcher at the University of Washington.
Creating a website involves buying a domain name and using programming code. In contrast, a new Facebook page is easy to setup, access, and share with an existing community. Tumblr, a blogging tool, can also be leveraged as a quick and easy website alternative. Tumblr is the tool of choice for Occupy Sandy Staten Island.
Twitter is valuable for disseminating compact (140 characters long) information-packed messages that are open to the public and easily searchable, says Starbird. Similarly, Instagram, a photo-sharing site, offers public sharing of visual information. During Sandy, pictures of flooding or fell trees shared on Instagram were quickly picked up and shared by national media sites like CNN. These tools are valuable to emergency response and relief efforts, which mobilize quickly after an event, because they are free and easy to navigate, says Starbird.
Besides using the internet to find field volunteer opportunities, there is an emerging new type of helper. Called a “digital volunteer,” this person uses the internet and social media to offer creative, inventive aid solutions remotely, says Starbird.
One well-known digital volunteer activity is crisis mapping. These volunteers, also called “hackers,” find, sort, and translate publicly available information, such as Tweets, into geospatial ideas that can be mapped, says Stempeck. Stempeck has participated in a few hacking sessions, including a MIT-lead one for Hurricane Sandy. Only tweets with existing geographic information, whether coordinates or location names, can be used for these efforts.
Locating map-worthy data is a time-consuming job. Converting that data into a workable format for mapping is another job. Then the actual mapping process, which involves mapping software like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), is yet a third job. Depending on the volunteer, he or she may do one or multiple mapping tasks. Emergency responders can leverage the end product for real-time decision-making. For example, a map of damaged building locations can help fire departments determine their response. Or a map of closed bridges may help police direct traffic more effectively.
Crisis mapping first took off in 2010 in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. United States-based volunteers, including a large collection of students at Tufts University, wanted to help the relief efforts but could not fly down to the Caribbean. So from campus, equipped with computers and Internet access, students led by Patrick Meier, a then Tufts graduate student with emergency management experience and now famous as a crisis-mapping guru, tracked, sorted, and mapped seismic damage information first posted on Twitter. Their efforts were eventually picked up by FEMA.
Since then crisis mapping has been used for other disasters, including the New Zealand Christ Church earthquake, the Japan Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the Joplin tornados all in 2011.
Some digital volunteers participate for a single disaster. But others jump from disaster to disaster. We are reaching the point where some people have participated in enough crisis digital volunteer situations that they are becoming “professionals,” explains Starbird. The existence of digital volunteers for Hurricane Sandy “was no exception,” she adds.
But Sandy was unique in the magnitude of digital volunteers. The high volunteer numbers came about because the area impacted—the entire Eastern Seaboard—was both very large and already “so wired to begin with,” says Stempeck. This means the level of social-media driven volunteerism was especially large. As a result, new “innovative” efforts were born, Starbird says.
Because New York City is a major technological hub, an especially large technology savvy group was impacted and managed to invented novel, self-serving hacking solutions. For example, crisis mapping techniques were appropriated for pairing people whose offices had no power with empty desk and floor space to work, says Stempeck.
On the flip side, major problems with social-media-driven emergency management and relief efforts were also identified in the midst of Sandy. One noticeable issue was the overwhelming amount of social media information, says Starbird. As more people turn to these tools, the data generated skyrockets. This means organizations and individuals trying to make sense of all this data have an increasingly harder job.
With Haiti, “I could follow the live Twitter stream,” says Starbird. There was new tweet every few seconds. Depending on the volume, she could catch between one-third to one-tenth of the tweets. But for Sandy, she continues, “No way!” In fact, “You couldn’t even see [the tweets], they were steaming so fast,” Starbird adds. She estimated that just watching the rapid-fire Sandy-related Twitter stream, she could only catch one thousandths of the information at a given time.
Social media is useful because it “compounds” information transfer from one site to the other, and even from people on these sites to beyond, said Stephens. But when false information is circulated, as was seen in Sandy, this becomes a problem. For Sandy, FEMA worked as a false information watchdog, added Stephens. But more people will need to be on-guard in future disasters.
Additionally, increased social media spurs relief effort overlap. To overcome redundancies, volunteers and officials should work more closely, says Starbird. But if Staten Island is any indicator, this partnership may evolve naturally, where Occupy members were collaborating with Red Cross on some projects.