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U.S.: Looking for Innovation on Disaster Communication
Source: fcw.com
Source Date: Friday, September 06, 2013
Focus: Institution and HR Management
Country: United States
Created: Sep 10, 2013

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy played host recently to a brainstorming session designed to generate ideas for using technology in disaster relief and recovery that included participants from the public and private sectors and non-profits. It was the latest in a series of "innovation jams" convened by OSTP in order to fast-track solutions to knotty problems.

One key problem facing first responders is how to cope with the fire hose of information coming from mainstream media and personal accounts on social media.

The Federal Emergency Management Association maintains a small digital engagement team to monitor social media for trends that might indicate need, but it's nothing like a virtual 911. The American Red Cross has trained about 160 digital volunteers that can exchange information across social networks in times of crisis, a service launched in the wake of Hurricane Irene in 2011.

According to Wendy Harman, director of information management at the American Red Cross, adding digital volunteers is a slow process because the organization's social media staff is stretched thin and it's hard to find time for training.

Harman, who was at the OSTP event, collaborated on a project that has the potential to help organize digital information in a crisis. The group developed a rapid prototype of a system that automatically identifies and tags information related to a particular disaster, whether it comes from news organizations or social media feeds. The idea is to give responders on the ground a picture of what's happening. Such an idea is useful, Harman said, because of the problem of trying to provide structure to the unstructured data flow of social media. The Red Cross does some of the same work in their digital center. "We're not an individual response organization, but we can pick up trends and see gaps in service," she said.

Molly Turner, director of public policy at the online vacation rental network Airbnb, said the session was more like a San Francisco hackathon than a government event. "It was very informal, with the least amount of talking-at I've ever received." Senior officials from FEMA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services participated in brainstorming sessions. "They provided Play-Doh, origami, toothpicks, and glue," Turner said. "They knew that some people like to visualize and physically prototype things as they brainstorm."

(By Adam Mazmanian)

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