In the morning of March 11, 2011, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake – one of the largest in recorded history — hit the east coast of Japan, triggering a mammoth tsunami that crashed into the country’s coastline. Within just moments, houses, cars and people were quickly swept away. Just as quickly as the sea rose to produce its 23-foot waves, so too were citizens frantically logging into their social media accounts, posting their whereabouts or sharing their statuses.
The people-at-risk used platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Mixi (a Japanese site) to communicate with local authority, aid agencies, friends and family. According to various reports, more than 1,200 tweets per minute were being transmitted from Tokyo only an hour after the massive quake. Furthermore, Twitter reported both a record number of tweets the day of the quake (177 million) and accounts added one day after (572,000, as opposed to the daily average of 460,000).
The devastating earthquake in Japan demonstrated once again the growing importance of social media in emergency situations. While conventional telephone lines become quickly overwhelmed during a disaster, many mobile devices or Internet connections remain functional and easily accessible. In fact, as many as 4 billion people around the world now use mobile phones. As a result, disaster relief agencies have transformed their response strategies to tap into this resource.
This past spring, for example, the American Red Cross and Dell launched a new Digital Operations Center, the first social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief. Located in the Red Cross National Disaster Operations Center in Washington, D.C., the center is modeled after Dell’s Social Media Listening Command Center and uses Dell technology solutions and consulting services. The center will help expand the Red Cross’s ability to engage with the public during emergencies. Tests run during recent tornadoes in the Midwest enabled Red Cross team members to determine where to position workers on the ground. Tools like heat maps also helped visualize spikes and prevalent themes in social conversations, contributing to relief-response strategies
“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.”
A Red Cross survey revealed that the Internet now is the third most commonly used way for people to get emergency-related information; nearly a fourth of the general public and a third of the online population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe. The survey found that people use social media during disasters to get updates, seek and give help, and connect with loved ones.
Social media has become a critical component of disaster response efforts conducted by the Red Cross and other response agencies. While social media complements existing traditional response efforts, 9-1-1 remains the best first action to take when a person needs emergency assistance.
This post is part 2 of the “Rio+20: Social for Sustainability Series” on ArmchairAdvocates. This week, world leaders and thousands of participants from all cross-sections of civil society will come together in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to discuss seven critical issues: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness. ArmchairAdvocates will be sharing and discussing how organizations, businesses and individuals are using social media to make an impact in sustainability.
[Source: Check out a fantastic article published last year in TIME Magazine on the use of social media in disasters. Also, visit American Red Cross for more information about their new disaster response team.]