In Oklahoma, tornado survivors used social media to tell loved ones they were safe. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Red Cross saved a man after a tweeted cell phone photo showed his location in a collapsed building. In New Jersey, tweets helped utility crews prioritize power restoration efforts after Hurricane Sandy. In Boston, residents used Facebook to offer housing to marathon-goers who couldn't get back to hotels near the bombing site.
Now Congress wants to know how to harness the power of social media so federal agencies can disseminate real-time information, connect with volunteers and quickly distribute resources where they're needed most.
The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness convened a hearing Tuesday to learn how changing technology has changed the emergency response playbook.
The subcommittee heard from a panel of experts: Matthew Stepka, vice president of Google's charitable arm, Google.org; Jason Payne, head of the philanthropy engineering team for Palantir Technologies, a California-based information analysis company; Michael Beckerman, president of The Internet Association, which represents cyberspace companies; and Jorge L. Cardenas, vice president of the Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey's largest public utility.
"People turn to the Internet when there is an emergency, and we want to make sure that the right information is there when people need it," Mr. Stepka told the panel.
Social media is a two-way street that allows information to flow both ways. Sometimes critical information comes from authorities and sometimes from the public, he said.
"Authoritative sources may not have as extensive information as individuals on the ground do," Mr. Stepka said. Information coming in isn't always reliable, but it can be useful in identifying trends, he said.
Panelists said government can help by providing public data in open-source formats so Web developers can quickly integrate it into programs that create maps and databases with useful information during disasters.
When data has to be manipulated into different formats, each extra step means a longer wait to disseminate critical information, panelists said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Weather Service and other agencies already are moving in the right direction but more needs to be done, they said.
Another way government can help is by quickly deploying mobile wireless hubs and generator stations that people can use to charge phones and computers during power outages, Mr. Payne said.
Mr. Beckerman said social media has been useful to volunteer organizations and individuals who want to help after a disaster. Good, real-time information allows them to do that well.
"It allows millions of minds to converge to solve problems, seek out answers and disseminate vital information," he said.
In the case of utility workers, social media allowed them to spot trends and communicate with customers directly to assess damage and to provide accurate estimates for when power would be restored.
"I think we were very empathetic to each of those who sent us a tweet and we did our very, very best to get timely, verified, real information out to the public," Mr. Cardenas said.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Brooks, R-Ind., said the management of big data and the use of social media can combine to provide significant opportunities to improve response to natural and man-made disasters.
"While social media originally started out as a way to share information among friends, it is evident that it has evolved to serve other functions," she said in a written statement. "We have heard numerous stories from Hurricane Sandy, the Boston bombings and now the Oklahoma tornadoes of how citizens used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to relay information to first responders, communicate with loved ones and request assistance."
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