Warning and informing is not even the start of it

I’ve been working very specifically on the impact of digital media on emergency planning for a couple of years now.

In that time we have seen a big shift in the attitude of some (but by no means all) emergency responders to online networks. I think most police forces and many local authorities now recognise that social networks have an important role to play in warning and informing the public.

Police services certainly also get the idea that there is valuable intelligence to be gleaned from these networks. To such an extent that we can now have conversations about the legal and governance frameworks that they operate under. I also have questions about how quickly they can deploy intelligence resources to presenting incidents.

Job done then?

Well I don’t think so. Because what excites me, and (from an emergency planning point of view) scares me, about this technology is the power it gives to individuals. We’ve really got to get a handle on how this changes things for responders and public safety.

Citizens have always used their networks to build information pictures. I remember when the factory in my home town caught fire (1993 children: long before mobile phones were available to most of us) it was the talk of the pubs. We triangulated data. We heard people say “so and so said this”, “I got this from my Brother who works at the factory”. That’s no different.

What’s different is we can do that in real time and from much wider networks.

So we respond rapidly based on an information picture only partly (if at all) informed by official sources.

And we are susceptible to people seeding our networks with false information for mischief or for malice.

I do not think any responders are factoring this fundamental change into their planning, tactics and changing. Apart from, possibly, in the area of public order where tactics have, of necessity changed.

Luckily you don’t need to take my word for it because proper academics are looking into this area. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a workshop hosted by the Resilience Team at Birmingham City Council where the team working on the DFuse project (funded by the EPSRC)  presented some of their findings and asked us to vaildate their work. Essentially give it a reality check.

On the basis of what I saw it’s a big project that stands to generate a load of useful learning. I believe the project will report fully in October but some papers have already been published.

Some of the work is interesting but not too many lessons for practice can yet be learned. There is a strong indication that the ability to communicate with each other during an evacuation may well change the behaviour of those being evacuated.

There’s some much stuff that is much more directly applicable. I really liked the study looking at what types of data are shared and sought at different stages following an incident.

For the moment I direct you to the paper (written by two Professors and three Doctors no less) presented at Department of Homeland Security Science Conference in March 2011 [PDF] which seems to lay out the areas the team was going to be looking into.

Some extracts to meditate upon include:

We consider that Web 2.0 technologies have produced a paradigm shift in the ways in which emergency response and evacuation on transport networks is coordinated. Information can now be controlled and disseminated by various publics, including (potentially) by terrorist groups. The ways in which such interference in social media could disrupt evacuation and emergency  response in mass transit systems has been under estimated.

And

We are in a situation where control of information and co-ordination is impossible – the spectra are too wide and the networks too large and diffuse – so solutions in terms of influence and suggestion are more plausible. Additionally, the scale of a multiple attack, or a natural disaster, on a major transport system in an English city has not always been a focus for academic research and there is a paucity of work in modeling extensive evacuations in England where ‘large’ or ‘mass’ evacuations  present ‘…the greatest challenge’.

It’s going to be useful stuff but we don’t need to wait for the academics to know that the world has fundamentally changed.

So if you have properly integrated social media into your warning and informing procedures (no small task for mult-agency response). Well done.

If you can provide good quality, timely and relevant data out of social media to your tactical and strategic teams. Excellent.

But you have barely started on the hard stuff.

Photo is Fire drill! by avixyz and used under CC BY-SA 2.0