Communicating in emergencies is part of managing emergencies

Man in waterproofs talking to a camera held by another man in waterproofsI have a well-rehearsed line whenever anyone suggests I shell out good money to attend a conference

“I no longer attend conferences unless I’m speaking at them”

This is mostly true. I’ve spent too many days spent listening to disappointing speakers who seem only to be there because they paid for the honour or because the conference organiser doesn’t actually understand what the state of the art is. Combine that with the discovery of different ways of meeting and learning (like unconferences) and it is a very rare programme of speaker after speaker that will get me to travel anywhere.

But the Emergency Planning Society Wales Branch proves that there is still a place for a bunch of people in a room watching some powerpoints.

I don’t think it’s rocket science. It’s an event for a very clear (if small) audience put together by people who understand that audience and really care.

Plus emergency planners in Wales seem to be a universally pleasant group of people.

Anyway we had a tour through evacuating students, the emergency planning aspects of taking action on modern slavery (that’s right, there are), considering the long term impacts on individuals affected by emergencies, interruptions to gas supply and much, much more.

Throughout all the talks, the importance of effective communications was stressed again and again. Communicating with affected communities, with the wider public and with journalists and the media is something that is increasing in importance.

And there seems little doubt that emergency planning professionals recognise the need to have trained communication professionals involved throughout emergencies and recovery.

Which, it won’t surprise you to learn, is a position I wholeheartedly support.

But I am also concerned. Comms teams are under considerable pressure as the public sector makes deeper and deeper cuts. That’s life right now in the public sector and it has to be managed. The temptation to cut back on training and exercising comms staff, on reducing rotas, on ending on-call payments must be strong. Maybe these things could seem like a luxury in a time of austerity.

One sensation that all emergency planners recognise is the feeling when an incident starts. The uncertainty about how bad things will get, who will be affected, what will need to be done to keep them safe coupled with the certainty that no-one else is coming to help.

We can’t magic money out of nowhere but we must not forget that communications is a fundamental part of emergency response and requires skilled, trained, experienced professionals to deliver.

This might seem slightly self interested since I run a company focused on training comms officers to work effectively in emergencies. But really it’s the other way around, I think you need effective communications to effectively manage emergencies. And I think I can help.

Photo is Morpeth Floods by John Dal used under a Creative Commons licence

Things we should sort out about using open sources in emergencies

Numbered cogs and metal buttons on a machine in close up

A problem

There’s a problem in the use of open source intelligence in emergencies.

Or perhaps more accurately there are a series of ineffectively managed risks.


I think that, at least in prinicple, there is widespread acceptance amongst category one and two responders and others that digital communications tools play a key role, possibly the primary role, in warning and informing the public. That was not the case even a small number of years ago. The risk that someone senior would turn up in an emergency and say

“we’re not doing any of that Facebook nonsense”

has diminished. There remain considerable differences in culture and capacity around digital between different organisations and this does create an area of some risk.

That’s not the risk I want to talk about here though.

As organisations get more used to using these tools in emergencies they are starting to notice that there are useful data being shared in social networks. Increasingly managers are asking for information about what is happening online.

This is all to the good of course and one of the reasons I am backing the plan to bring the VOST concept to the UK.

It’s also where the risks come in.

Who is watching social media?

Often when you pose these questions in multi-agency groups a police officer with plenty of stripes will bristle slightly and point out that it is self-evident that the police service does the intelligence gathering around here.

That’s fine, police forces are clearly equipped for such work and I guess the average citizen would expect police forces to be gathering data from open sources around, for example, a controversial protest march. Are they as skilled in gathering data relevant to surface water flooding? Or animal diseases?

The risk is that if we aren’t clear on whose job it is, it becomes no-ones job.

Or the person who everyone looks to do it in an emergency gets made redundant.

You lot know about Twitter

And my experience  is that in many organisations communications (media / PR / digital) teams are being asked to play this sort of role. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly.

On one level, again, that’s fine. Comms teams usually have the technical skill and familiarity with social networks.

Comms teams are trained for a different task. Mining data from social networks (as I do in my voluntary role with Standby Task Force) is a skill. It requires judgements to be made based on a set of incomplete understandings. Just like other forms of intelligence gathering (or research).

I’m not saying comms professionals aren’t capable of doing this, but are they being trained to make sure they are analysing the data objectively and presenting reports with accurate confidence weighting?

Reasonable searches

And I’m not convinced we’ve got the issues around what level of data we should be mining sorted yet. Running a search for mentions of place names in case people are telling each other (but not the council) of flooding sounds reasonable (doesn’t it?).

What about when I see a report from an account I’m not familiar with, how do I work out whether I can trust that report. I’d probably have a look down their social media profile, to see if they have sent messages about that location before. I might Google their name (or their user name) to see if I can find out more about them on other social media platforms.

Is this reasonable and proportionate?

That citizen has a right to privacy but it’s not an absolute right. The state (including, presumably, local authority comms officers) can infringe people’s privacy if it is lawful, reasonable and proportionate to do so. And the fact that people have put information about themselves in places where it can be seen does not, of itself, mean it is reasonable for me to go and look for it, in this context, at this time.

These feel like risks we should be talking about. They are all highly manageable through the key tools of emergency management: planning, training and exercising.

It’s certainly something we hope to build into the VOST model for the UK.

It’s just ignoring them that is risky.

Podcast: second album syndrome

Against all expectation Helen Reynolds and I have managed to produce a second podcast. The sound quality isn’t perfect as we were wrestling with flaky hotel internet.

But we did manage to cover NATO, the joys of the Economist, a smart NHS marketing campaign, encryption and loads of other stuff.

Hope you enjoy it

If you really like it, why not subscribe on iTunes?

VOST in the UK: an actual plan

Day two at BlueLightCamp was a hack day.

But we encouraged everyone to think a bit beyond the usual conception of hackdays (lots of dev, lots of code, lots of visualisations) to focus on getting useful work done in any medium.

So a group of us foregathered to carry on the VOST discussion that had kicked off on day one and move it into an action plan.

A photo record of the flipcharts we threw out is available.

Got to start somewhere

We started on from the assumption that having VOST available in the UK would be a good thing, which is not to say that we believe the argument has been won (or even had) but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Then we imagined a hypothetical police officer chairing a tactical meeting. They get to the item in the checklist that says “consider activating VOST”.

What do they need to know to make that decision? we wondered and suggested these sort of things

A well understood set of terms of reference.

Realistically, the nature of the UK approach to emergency management means clarity on this point is very important. One model suggested to emulate is the casualty bureau. Police forces maintain this capability, make it available to other agencies in emergencies and the scope and capability is widely understood.

One distinct feature of VOST is it is agency neutral. That potential means no agency owns it but also means it can be nimble and responsive.

Is VOST appropriate for all incidents? Would you activate a VOST in a suspected terrorism incident? Would it be activated in a public health emergency?

Clarity on the outputs from VOST.

Is VOST a filter finding the items that look relevant or will it apply intelligence. If the latter, how will the certainty in each item be communicated. Will VOST provide written sitreps or map overlays or something else (live access to a spreadsheet for example). There was a lot of excitement around the idea that we could produce mapping layers with different colours or coding for different reports and confidence. This pleased me as it seemed we were reinventing Ushahidi.

How often will VOST report. In a presenting incident a “battle-rhythm” (I don’t like these military allusions myself) of hourly updates was considered a good target. Which raises the question of what level of resource is necessary to provide that with no notice for a couple of weeks. Then there is the recovery phase, where a slower rhythm is probably appropriate but that could go on for a long, long time.

Where it fits into multi-agency response.

Actually we went round this quite a bit. In terms of where cat one responders seem to be building their capacity VOST would link to comms / media cells. There are other attractions to this from my point of view… comms cells are multi-agency and tightly integrated into the tactical layer.

The argument against this is that VOST (certainly as we conceptualised it) is primarily an information gathering/processing function so that would seem to place it in the intelligence cell which would bring a whole set of complications.

Or there could be a distinct VOST cell. As I understand it this is essentially the model used by VOSTs in some other countries. Personally I’m quite attracted by this model but I think, practically, it would mean VOST would be left out more frequently.

And this led us into some slightly wider questions.

Is any LRF / RRP already doing this sort of thing well?

This seems like a good question for the CCS, or the internet generally.

What are the practical and operational limits of VOST?

And related to this what are the technical requirements. Personally I feel that porting the VOST workbook to Resilience Direct would be a great place to start but that would make it hard to collaborate with non UK VOSTs. Which raises the question…

What should be the link in terms of interoperability with VOST volunteers around the world?

How directly applicable is the global / US model to the UK?

This is a genuine question. On the face of it if it works in the USA you would have thought it would work in the UK but we do have a very different concept of emergency management and some very different organisational cultures. So we feel we need to test this

And then towards some actual proposals:

To develop a “product” that can be offered to LRFs to plug in at tactical level.

There are some prerequisites that we see to this some of which are listed above (sorting out the TOR, the capability, the limits and the outputs).

We need to nail the data protection and Article 8 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) issues too.

And we need to do something so we can show people what we are talking about.

To run a live exercise analysing data and producing outputs based around a non-emergency situation.

We’ve been calling this a “stress test”.

We started with the idea of Eurovision but we’d have to wait until next May to do that and we’d like to do something sooner. So we were thinking of a big cycling event or similar. We hope to recruit and train a bunch of volunteers just for that single event. This should help us test whether the USA model works in the UK and will give us something more tangible to show to LRFs.

We’d like to find a friendly academic who would like to provide some independent evaluation of this process. If you know anyone, point them our way.

Provide a competency framework and role profile for VOST team members.

There are potentially existing  frameworks and structures we could tap into for this. But we want to make it really easy for an LRF to get this capability up and working without having to do re-work.

We’re running a Trello board to coordinate this, it’s private for the moment but drop me a line if you’d like to be added in.

All comments, improvements, suggestions or, really, anything on this really welcomed.


Discussions on VOST at BlueLightCamp

BlueLightCamp took place in Birmingham last weekend (6 and 7 June). I expected there to be some discussion on VOST* and there was.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so much discussion, and planning, but there was.

@Rubonist pitched a session on VOST on Saturday and several of us who think the idea has merit for the UK got together with some who are unconvinced and some who had never heard of the idea.

I thought this was a really useful discussion. It crystallised some thinking for me, especially the fact that we need to separate out the way of working: the VOST mission as it were, from the staffing (volunteers or paid staff). We need to recognise that actually there are several conceptual leaps that people need to make if they are to get their heads around what we are proposing:

  • there is useful data in social networks
  • that data is not currently available to decision makers in emergencies in the UK
  • if it were available they would make better decisions
  • processing that data requires specially trained people able to work together
  • they don’t need to be in the same location
  • those people could be specially trained volunteers (or specially trained employees)

I think I tend to jump straight to the end without checking everyone is with me through all the stages.

What was particularly significant about this for me was that (@mtthwhgn‘s point) we can talk about VOST as a process within multi-agency response without getting bogged down in the question of volunteers. So we might say it is a task for the comms/media cell, train comms officers and make sure that they have the ability (and technology) to operate a VOST.

I suspect (as I imagine most comms professionals in cat ones will) that comms teams won’t have the capacity to do that on top of their warning and informing tasks.

Which is why we keep talking about volunteers.

Not all of those who started the discussion unconvinced by the need left it with their minds transformed but I do think most people felt that there was a potentially useful role here which would fill a gap to some extent.

I went to an earlier workshop pitched by Neil Beet about, essentially, open source intelligence gathering (in terms of legal and social limits). This is a particular interest of mine. I think it would be useful to nail this issue in terms of VOST sooner rather than later.

I felt pretty positive about the engagement on VOST after day one, but there was more, much more, to come on day two.

*Virtual Operational Support Team. The very good idea that you can improve your information picture if you get a team dedicated to reviewing relevant social media stuff and telling you what is happening out there. They do it in other countries already.

Project management methodologies: again

Following another of those conversations about projects where people told me they “don’t like Agile” or think that we should use “proper” project management techniques I decided to write down my thoughts on project management methodologies. I rather hope this will be cathartic. It will also mean I have something to send people when I find myself embroiled in another of those conversations again.

Where I come from on this.

I have been trained in and have applied in my career three different project management techniques:

  • Scrum: an agile methodology
  • PRINCE2: a waterfall methodology
  • Integrated Emergency Management: a methodology for… well… managing emergencies

This doesn’t, of itself, make me a better project manager but it does give me a distinct perspective on project management.

Essentially I don’t believe there is a “proper” way to manage projects. I do believe that one technique may be safer (ie less risky) than the others in any given context.

Different techniques for different scenarios.

Like the railways

I don’t know anything about managing railways. So let’s use that as a way for me to illustrate what I’m talking about.


Lets say my project is to install a brand new signalling system at a railway junction. Network Rail is going to give me 8 hours (or 4? I don’t know) overnight to do the job. This project has some distinctive features:

– it is incredibly important that I get this exactly right. No-one is going to let trains run past my new signalling system unless they are completely satisfied that it does what it is supposed to do. In every regard.

– it is clear what exactly right means in this context. Clever engineers (I choose to believe) have spent a lot of time thinking about how trains interact with signals and once I have finished installing it; my new system will be checked by a clever engineer, against every single criteria.

– I can reduce the risk of this project going horribly wrong by preparing really well in advance. This is a process known to project managers as planning. In fact I will probably spend orders of magnitude more time planning the project than I will delivering it.

– if I get it horribly wrong and at the end of my 8 (or 4) hour window, the signalling system isn’t exactly right, the time will be extended. Of course people will be very cross, my company will be fined lots of money and I may lose my job but so important is the specification that, if necessary we will extend the time and pay more to make sure we get it exactly right.

This is a job for waterfall project management. In fact it is for this sort of situation that product descriptions and GANNTT charts were invented.

Build me a brand new thing

Let’s suppose that, flush with my successful delivery of a signalling system, my company decides that they want to market a brand new signalling system. This will be a signalling system to rule them all. The marketing folk want to demonstrate it at the global signalling expo in 6 months time and they have a long list of things they would, in an ideal world, like it to do. This project also has some distinctive features:

– it is incredibly important to deliver something on time. If we can’t demonstrate something at the global signalling expo then we can’t sell it.

– I don’t need to get it exactly right. OK the marketing folk have a wish list but if I only deliver half the things on their list that’s still better than what we have now. And if I asked them if they would like half the list delivered in time for the expo of the whole list 6 months later, we know what they would say.

– there is a limit to how much I can reduce the risk of this going horribly wrong through planning. Because by definition we have never built a signalling system like this before. In fact, hopefully, no-one else has. It would be more sensible to start and to keep checking how we’re doing against the wish list (iteration).

This is a job for Agile project management. Time is a constraint, specification is flexible and we’ve never done this before.

Save me

Now let’s suppose I’ve moved jobs. A train has come off the tracks (not as a result of my excellent signalling system). Hundreds of people need evacuating, many are injured, some seriously. Perhaps 150 people are involved in the response from over 10 different organisations. People need help right now. You’ve guessed it, this project also has distinctive features.

– the situation is very complex and likely to change rapidly. And at the start of the project we have a fairly hazy picture of what is going on.

– we must start delivering immediately.

– planning can help to reduce the risk of things going (more) wrong. We can’t plan for this exact scenario but we can imagine that sometime, somewhere a train might come off the rails and so we can think about how we might approach that situation. That said we will need to allow flexibility because we know that every situation will be different.

– short term and rapid planning can also help to reduce the risk of things going (more) wrong. We can get some people to think about how bad things might get and start planning for those situations: what if all the passengers needed to go to hospital for example.

– resource is not a primary constraint. That said, we can’t magic money or trained staff, or ambulances out of thin air. We’ll need to find them, get them to the scene and work out what is going to happen to the jobs they were, presumably, supposed to be doing.

This is a job for integrated emergency management. Work must start immediately. The situation is complex and poorly understood. Resource is not a primary constraint.

If you think Agile looks crazy you should investigate IEM.

Common features

Ultimately project management is about getting the job done, as well as possible.

There are surprising numbers of common features between all three techniques (though they handle them in very different ways):

– communication is key

– senior people need to take big decisions but if they micromanage they increase risk

– people working on the project need to know what the task is

– people working on the project need to be familiar with how the project is managed

There. I’m not sure anyone else is interested but, in the future, if I have directed you to this page it is only to save you 30 minutes of increasingly frustrated ranting.

And I’d be really interested in your views…








Coming home is strange: it feels like leaving

Pile of business cards. The logo Likeaword is very prominentSo my business cards arrived today.

That makes it official.

I am now properly the MD of the likeaword consultancy.

Last time I did this sort of thing I learned a lot (and wrote a series of blog posts about what I had learned)

In 2008 I concluded that what organisations needed was help to understand how social media would change emergency response and people’s behaviour in disasters. That was, as it turned out, correct. I think it is fair to say that the market took some time to develop.

In 2015 I concluded that organisations need help to understand and adapt to the profound changes digital technology is making to society. Emergencies and disaster response are areas where we see this impact most dramatically but it can be felt across all organisations all of the time.

So I haven’t left the public sector for corporate shilling. Nor have I left local government so I can do more for local government.

In fact it’s not about leaving at all.

I’ve taken a step into a role where I think I can make a real contribution to helping citizens and organisations make serious use of the amazing abilities that each one of us now has available at our fingertips.

Likeaword isn’t intended to become a global colossus nor is it intended to be a one person band. It should be just as big as it needs to be and just as small as it can be.

And, hopefully, useful.

Please get in touch if you think we can help.

(the title is a quote by the way from a song on this album)

5 things we learned at #RocketCamp 5

Lovely to be back on Church St for #rocketcamp

A photo posted by Toki Noz (@tiktoknoz) on


Thanks to everyone who came along to RocketCamp last week, and especially our three speakers.

There was loads of great discussion. Here are 5 things that I took away from the evening

1. Consider visually impaired people when you post photos online

Bik Lee from the Royal National College for the Blind took us through an exercise which took everyone from “What?” to “Whoa, I totally get this”.

We all know that photos are awesome on social networks, but what about people who can’t see your image? The RNC provides a full description of each image they post on Facebook. Even if you think that’s over the top, a short note might help ensure you aren’t shutting out a section of your audience.

2. Things are changing at Herefordshire Nature Trust

For a start it’s becoming Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.

But they’re also going to be dusting off their social media presences and refreshing their website.

John Clarke from the Trust gave a passionate talk about the work of the Trust and how their focus will be on connecting the people of the county with the wildlife of the county.

3. Choose your weapon

There is a LOT of social media out there. You don’t want to be, and probably can’t be on every platform. So pick the right platforms and work with them.
Richard Gallagher (who works with me at Herefordshire Council) covered this in his great talk on getting started with social media marketing. He also talked about the importance of working with people who are already influential in your networks. In his case he’s still chuffed to bits about a bit of help he received from PewDiePie (what do you mean, who?)

4. Social media can be a tool for inclusion

Apparently one of the things students at the RNC like about social media platforms is that online they are the same as everyone else. Offline people can see their white stick or their guide dog. On social networks people just see them.

5. If you don’t like tweeting for yourself, maybe a customer will help you

Apparently one of Ben’s customers at the Rocket Camp is so keen to share the joys of the food and atmosphere that she is tweeting for him.

How awesome is that?

Rocket Camp returns April-ish.