Red Cross Opens Social Media Center For Disaster Response

March 7, 2012       Paul Clolery      

The American Red Cross (ARC) has launched a digital operations center and digital volunteer program to coordinate response efforts during disasters, particularly when storm victims are huddled in a basement away from other forms of communication.

The Digital Operations Center demonstrates the increasing importance of social media in emergency situations. The launch of a Digital Volunteer program will help Red Cross respond to questions and information from the public during disasters.

“The use of social media during disasters has grown exponentially in recent years, and this partnership with Dell will enable us to better understand and anticipate disaster needs and help connect people with the resources they need during emergencies,” said Gail J. McGovern, president and CEO of the Red Cross. “Our goal is to become a social liaison for people, families and communities to support one another before, during and after disasters.”

The Digital Operations Center was established with a $580,000 donation from Dell, which is divided between strategic programs that employ technology for emergency preparedness and disaster relief, as well as general donations to nationwide disaster-relief preparedness, including $50,000 to Central Texas Red Cross. Dell is based in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin.

It is modeled after Dell’s Social Media Listening Command Center, which it uses to track information regarding what consumers think about the firm. “Social media is playing a growing role in how the public and nonprofit sectors listen and respond to Americans in need,” said Michael Dell, chairman and CEO of Dell. “Through Dell’s Social Media Command Center, we’ve been able to innovate and improve how we support and engage our customers. We’re excited to partner with the Red Cross to extend similar capabilities to their humanitarian relief efforts nationwide.”

Dell is also providing consulting expertise, technology and funding to architect and build the new Digital Operations Center and design the Digital Volunteer program.

According to MobiLens, 72.5 million people in the United States own a smartphone. Such devices are equipped to go on the Web to communicate via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. An ARC survey showed that the Internet now is the third most commonly used way for people to get emergency-related information behind news on television and local radio. The survey was conducted during this past summer and involved 1,046 online respondents and 1,011 telephone surveys. The survey also found that more than half of the people on a social network (55 percent) check in there daily.

“In a world where people can organize themselves without needing institutions or infrastructure, we have to adapt to provide 21st century humanitarian services. Our hope is that this center is a big step toward giving the public a seat at the table of Red Cross disaster operations,” said Wendy Harman, ARC’s director, social strategy.

“It provides us real-time situational awareness from the actual people affected. For example, we know whether there’s a large population of people who can’t contact their loved ones, whether there’s a big community desire to volunteer, whether people need shelter, food, or other supplies,” said Harman. Before the center’s launch, ARC only had the capacity to see social conversations that actually mentioned it. “This center allows us to see a holistic view of any given emergency situation,” she said.

The Digital Operations Center will help Red Cross source additional information from affected areas during emergencies, spot trends and better anticipate the public’s needs; and connect people with the resources they need during a disaster, such as food, water, shelter or even emotional support.

The ARC won’t send an emergency response vehicle to a single person who Tweets that they could use a sandwich, but it will “help find a number of people in a single neighborhood saying they need help and haven’t seen any relief yet; we or one of our partners will respond,” said Harman.

No one person’s Tweet moves supplies. Many Tweets about a single issue affects the response.

The command center was operational when the tornados hit the Midwest last week. “We could see Henryville (Indiana) was one of the most impacted by the tornado and we did move volunteers near there, safely, based on what we saw in the new center. We would have gotten there eventually but now we could make the decision based on good information much more quickly,” said Harman. There were more than 45,000 bits of information during the storm’s 11-state rampage.

“This is a bigger picture dashboard where we can see overall volumes of conversation over a number of days, our share of voice versus partners. Or, we can compare various topics about ourselves and overall sentiment,” said Harman.

“We are equipping subject matter experts within each line of service (biomedical, disaster, international, health & safety, and service to armed forces) with an engagement console so their work can be directly informed by the public,” said Harman. “Not only will we be giving the public a seat at the operational table during emergencies, but we’re moving toward a working model where we’re informed by the public at every level of our mission.”

The new Digital Volunteer Program support the just three paid staff currently handling ARC’s social media. Volunteers from across the country will be trained to respond online to questions from the public, distribute critical information and provide comfort and reassurance during emergencies. The digital volunteers will play a role in working to verify and curate an incredible volume of data during disasters, notifying Digital Operations Center staff of online trends and situational information that can inform disaster-response efforts. They will also engage with people affected by disasters, providing them with critical safety information, resources and comforting messages, according to ARC.

During testing of the digital volunteer role, Red Cross let some of the public help engage. In four-hour shifts, ARC invited an initial group of existing volunteers to help monitor, filter and aggregate incoming social data. “Most importantly, they could act on much of that actionable data in real time,” said Harman. The volunteers provided links to tips, directions to the nearest shelter, and offered support to those going through a disaster and to those who wanted to help.