When Hurricane Sandy touched down on the Eastern Seaboard, the American Red Cross was ready with its usual arsenal of disaster tools--data from government partners, on-the-ground assessments, and damage reports from traditional media. For the past year and a half, the Red Cross has also had an additional not-so-secret weapon in dealing with disaster: social media. And during Sandy, the millions of Tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries, and photos posted online resulted in a shift of the Red Cross's resources.
In March 2012, the organization announced it was creating the American Red Cross Digital Operations Center, a social media crisis monitoring center. The setup was based on computer company Dell's similar command center, intended to track online conversations about the brand.
"The more we got to know them and their social program, the more we realized there are some commonalities," says Laura Howe, vice president of public relations at the American Red Cross. Dell helped the Red Cross set up its operations center, and the Red Cross now trains its volunteers based on Dell's best practices. The operations center also uses a Dell network running Radian6 social media engagement software.
"We use the digital operations center to monitor and look across the social space at the conversation that's happening around the disaster," says Howe. "Not only are we scanning that social media landscape looking for actionable intelligence, we are also scanning the social space to see if there are people out there who need information and emotional support." The next challenge is extracting additional information that could be useful in helping the Red Cross decide how to respond, she says.
During the week of Hurricane Sandy, the Red Cross tracked more than 2 million posts and responded to thousands of people. In the end, 88 social media posts directly affected response efforts--a fairly significant shift of resources. "We put trucks in areas where we saw greater need, we moved cots to a shelter where we needed more supplies," says Howe.
Even a lack of postings can tell the Red Cross something. If there is a social media black hole in a certain neighborhood, that probably means the area needs help.
The Red Cross didn't make decisions during Sandy based solely on social media information, of course. Every online post was evaluated along with the organization's other data streams. If a cluster of people in a neighborhood tweet that they need bottled water, and government data confirms that there may be a problem, that's the kind of information the group can use.
"Sandy was the marquee event that showed the potential of what the tool could do," says Howe, but she adds that the command center is used every day--even an apartment fire in a large metro area can lead to a spike in postings the team monitors.
The Red Cross and Dell are far from the only organizations to use social media command centers, but rarely has one of these centers been so helpful to the general American population. "It enables us to give the public a seat at our response table. That was something we were never able to do before," says Howe.
[Image: Flickr user Roman Iakoubtchik]