Fresh on the heels of last week’s tornado disaster, the American Red Cross and Dell have unveiled a social media crisis monitoring center at the Red Cross’ Washington, D.C. headquarters. The command center, formally called the American Red Cross Digital Operations Center, will track Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to find emergency victims and pass that info on to first responders to help get aid to disaster victims. Smartly, the Red Cross is taking their cues from the private sector, the traditional leaders in tracking and monitoring social media. Dell was bought in to construct the project—and they modeled it on their own Social Media Listening Command Center which is used to track brand sentiment and chatter.
The Digital Operations Center will run on a Dell network running Salesforce.com’s Radian6 social media engagement software. During disasters, the Red Cross will be able to find out about specific incidents, and spot trends and anticipate public needs. In addition, Red Cross representatives will be able to use the command center to quickly match disaster victims with aid relief.
The first real test for the recently opened command center was the devastating tornadoes that hit the United States last week. Using data visualizations provided by the Digital Operations Center that showed where people were affected by the disaster, Red Cross representatives were able to efficiently and effectively position workers on the ground in the Indiana towns of Henryville and Marysville. Community relations teams were also stationed based on information gathered via social media scraping. The Digital Operations Center also helped the Red Cross effectively deal with considerable traffic from ordinary Americans looking to help, giving them up-to-date info on the best ways to donate.
According to Dell CEO Michael Dell, "social media is playing a growing role in how the public and nonprofit sectors listen and respond to Americans in need […] We’re excited to partner with the Red Cross to extend similar capabilities to their humanitarian relief efforts nationwide."
Rather than operating 24/7, the social media command center will be staffed primarily during major disasters. The command center will operate within the larger Red Cross Disaster Operation Center; however, data visualizations from the social media center will be updated around the clock, regardless of who’s actually in the office.
Dell’s Maribel Sierra noted that the Red Cross project was one of many social media monitoring centers that the computer giant hopes to develop in the future—a similar (though non-disaster) system was unveiled for Clemson University last week. Sierra and Dell’s Rishi Dave noted that one of the most important parts of these monitoring centers for Dell is consulting and developing solutions tailored towards individual organizations.
In conjunction with the Digital Operations Center launch, the Red Cross is also unveiling a new digital volunteer program, which will be entirely separate from the social media command center. Volunteers across the country will respond on the Red Cross’ behalf to disaster victims, offering crucial emergency information on an individual basis. In other words: If you want to volunteer to get the word out about Red Cross relief via Facebook or Twitter, there’s a spot available. The Red Cross’ Wendy Harman also told Co.Exist that the volunteers will also give, well, "virtual hugs." Virtual hugs are less silly than they sound—Harman envisions volunteers communicating with people, say, trapped in their basement by natural disasters. The ubiquity of smartphones means this will become increasingly more important.
The digital volunteers will also provide a crucial resource to the Red Cross: Crowdsourcing. Volunteers will be expected to verify and curate data for the Digital Operations Center, and to offer ongoing trend analysis information.
Building social media command centers has turned into a valuable business for Dell and Salesforce.com, two of the few firms with experience building custom enterprise social media monitoring centers. However, this is the first known example of a commercial social media monitoring setup being adapted to disaster relief. Given that the private sector—and especially American retail brands—have traditionally been at the forefront of customer tracking and analysis, it’s an effective use of money, and it will also save lives.