Social media’s not all bad – it’s saving lives in disaster zones

Social media was recently credited with reducing the number of casualties caused by air strikes in the Syrian civil war. The early warning system, developed by tech startup Hala Systems, uses remote sensors to detect aircraft flying over the opposition-held northern province of Idlib. Alerts are then sent via Facebook and instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp to civilians and aid workers in affected areas. These messages give relevant information such as the areas likely to come under heavy bombardment and the duration of these raids.

Since its launch in 2016, the system has reportedly reduced the number of casualties in the region caused by  by as much as 27%. The system also triggers traditional air raid sirens that might actually be more effective than social media in reaching key demographics in affected areas. Nevertheless, this example shows why social media has become big news for emergency managers seeking to provide accurate and timely information to people affected by disasters.

Incidents such as Hurricane Sandy in September 2012 have shown how disaster response teams can leverage the “power of collective intelligence” given by social media. Members of the public use these platforms to share critical information that helps build a bigger picture of the situation. They also play a key role in correcting misinformation and dispelling rumours that have the potential to hinder efforts to restore critical services in affected areas.

Twitter hashtags in particular function as “fire spaces”, transforming data generated by citizens into information that helps first responders allocate resources to the people who need them most. Emergency managers frequently use information-gathering platforms such as Ushahidi and Twitcident to help them sift through the large volume of data available on these sites at each stage of the incident.

They have also mobilised “digital volunteers” who offer their time without having to leave home to assist with this task. Groups such as the Virtual Operations Support Teams and the Digital Humanitarian Network helped analyse the  generated during natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, as well as terrorist incidents such as the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks.

Social media can also be used by citizens to provide emotional and material support to those living in disaster-affected areas. Our research projects CascEff and IMPROVER found several examples of such citizen-led social media campaigns. These included #hasselthelp, which provided shelter to those festival goers who had fled the 2011 Pukkelpop festival disaster. And #PorteOuverte, which fulfilled the same function for those caught up in the Paris terrorist attacks.

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