June 4, 2013, Subcommittee Hearing: Emergency Management 2.0 How Social Media and New Technology are Transforming Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery.
Testimony of Christine Thompson President and Co-Founder of Humanity Road before the Subcommittee Hearing: Emergency MGMT 2.0: How #SocialMedia & New Tech are Transforming Preparedness, Response, & Recovery #Disasters #Part1 #Privatesector
Chairman Brooks, Ranking Member Payne and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. My name is Christine Thompson, President and Co-Founder of Humanity Road, a 501c3 Public Charity that specializes in digital disaster relief. In support of its mission, Humanity Road volunteers harness Internet and mobile communications technology to collect, verify and route information online during sudden onset disaster.
Using the Internet, we research and share public safety information and direct the public to governmental and aid agencies that provide disaster assistance. Since 2010 Humanity Road supported over 500 emerging events in 53 countries and helped develop and execute 11 joint social media exercises for private and public sector partners.
We responded in social media for tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, blizzards and manmade events and activated to provide surge support monitoring of social media by local, county and state level officials. In the past three years we watched the amazing growth of mobile and Internet based communications used by the impacted public in the United States.
During our operations, including Hurricane Sandy, we documented the effective use of social media and technology tools in fast moving and slow moving events. Social Media has been used to facilitate rescues, reunite loved ones, manage spontaneous donations and collect situational information. We are here to provide examples of how technology has been used, the benefits and challenges and ask for your support on four specific areas:
1. Engage Humanitarian Technology Partners
2. Manage Response – Structure for the use of Technology Partners
3. Manage Preparedness – Plan for Technology in Training and Exercises
4. Accelerating Lessons Learned and Innovation
The Belle Harbor community response in Rockaway New York after Superstorm Sandy provides an excellent example of a whole community approach to disaster response and how social media, digital disaster response and new technology are transforming preparedness, response, & recovery. This community is positioned on a peninsula accessible only by bridge. The area was inundated by storm surge, sand, and winds causing a power and communications blackout with catastrophic damage.
In the face of these challenges local residents through the use of social media and technology partners catalyzed a recovery effort that serviced over 10,000 people a day. Two hundred volunteers managed the operation daily. St. Francis de Sales School had no functioning phones, power or heat. The nearest Red Cross Shelter was more than 30 miles away and transportation and gas were nonexistent or challenged. By request, a collaborative technology team delivered an innovative communications solution onsite within 24 hours.
And within a few days, this local community led effort had their own citizen-run command center with satellite communications and Wifi hotspot. The command center solution was operating on generator and solar powered lights. It became the central coordination point for volunteer coordination, field survey teams, feeding, donation management, medical assessments, and community response teams that helped with debris removal to name a few. The community volunteer team at St.
Francis included Monsignor Brown, local youth, residents and spontaneous volunteers from throughout the city. The community used social media to list “essentials” controlling donation and volunteer management. A mobile medic team also went door to door taking water and supplies, performed health screenings on the vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly who were stranded without elevator service in high-rise buildings. Challenges remained, the community needed to warn its residents about a second dangerous storm that was approaching. Paper bulletins were posted on church doors, paper handouts made in multiple languages and locals resorted to using bullhorns. The collaborative communications solution team at St.
Francis de Sales provided over a quarter million dollars in communications assets and services. The lead partner cost for spearheading this physical deployment was only $5,000. The solution team included nonprofits such as Humanity Road, Disaster Tech Lab, Information Technology Disaster Relief Center (ITDRC), and other private sector partners including Aruba Networks, Viasat, Cisco, and Goal Zero. Each played a role in empowering the local community response efforts through technology. This innovative approach was not a Joint Resource Center (JRC) or Disaster Resource Center (DRC) launched and run by FEMA.
It was a Whole Community Resource Center which put the recovery at the local level, not state or federal. The FEMA Innovation Team is studying these local response activities and working on recommended improvements in the design of the disaster recovery center models. The approach used in Belle Harbor worked and not only because of the innovative use of social media, communications technology and power solutions; but because the solution provided was for the community by the community.
Technology is only useful when people know how to use it, it must fulfill the local need and not intrude on or complicate the primary mission of the local disaster response and recovery efforts. In summary, the effective use and implementation of technology and social media can rapidly reach populations isolated from the response chain due to communications and power impacts.
Digital volunteerism and digital response organizations in the social media age can help empower a community to take part in their own recovery efforts. This can also provide relief that mitigates traditional response chain issues in large scale events reducing the recovery period and associated costs.
However, whenever innovation meets implementation, there are challenges. There is a gap in assessing communications outages as currently, there is no publicly available map for communications availability or outages. There are also challenges in response reporting, preparedness planning and measuring effective social media and technology mobilization. Having provided examples of Humanity Road’s Rockaway deployment and considering the benefits and challenges faced there, we ask for your support in four specific areas;
1. Engage Humanitarian Technology Partners Humanitarian technology disaster response organizations work both online and also deploy into the impacted area. These teams provide a great opportunity for improving the speed and accuracy of initial damage assessments by improving communications. We recommend disaster response officials and organizations take advantage of using volunteer based disaster response organizations that are skilled in the use of Internet and mobile communications technologies including social media.
This can provide a cost effective solution to a high volume problem and closes gaps between non-technical government organizations and high tech disaster response techniques. These humanitarian partners work with equipment and service providers to deliver solutions that meet local needs and participate in disaster preparedness training and exercises to build resilience and readiness.
2. Manage Response – Structure for the use of Technology Partners. We recommend that officials review and designate a suggested reporting structure within the Incident Command Structure for technology deployment activities such as surge support media monitoring and crowdsourcing during disaster.
3. Manage Preparedness – Plan for Technology in Training and Exercises. Technology driven communications solutions such as social media, crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, and surge support for social media should be included in preparedness planning and exercises. Training is also needed to build basic skills in local, county and state organizations. The existing grant process is tied to county and state government and is geography centric.
Digital disaster response is not always tied to a specific geography. We recommend that grants be made available to nongovernmental technology organizations for preparedness and response initiatives to build competence and resilience with consideration that these initiatives may be regional or national in scope.
4. Accelerating Lessons Learned and Innovation We recommend that Congress adopt innovation and acceleration by supporting the DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group and the FEMA Innovation Team & FEMA Think Tank programs. These are working models that can facilitate and accelerate process improvement in the area of social media and technology. These partners help to identify lessons learned and can test them in a fail safe environment for incubation, planning and implementation. The FEMA Innovation Team, which is part of the FEMA Think tank is working on a communications heat map that would provide the public with availability of wireless communications and WIFI hotspots during disaster. And the DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group just published its newest document; Lessons Learned: Hurricane Sandy.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony. I will be glad to answer any questions and can also elaborate on additional examples of the effective use of technology and social media during disaster.
President, Humanity Road