Crisis Management 3.0: Social Media and Governance in Times of Transition

David J. Kaufman, Director of Policy and Program Analysis, FEMA

On Feb. 16, 2012, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a panel of experts to examine the role that social networks play in preventing and managing crises using “Web 3.0 Resilience Systems.” The discussion centered on the effectiveness of these systems over a Web 2.0 social network.

While Web 2.0 social networks include systems like Facebook and Twitter, Web 3.0 social systems make use of a variety of tools that many say are more effective because they can prevent emergencies from turning into crises. Recent advances in technology allows the collective engagement of millions of sensors in a “cloud”, such as phones, in a real time hyper-network that can allow neighborhoods to take action before a crisis. For example, in a recent explosion of gas lines, loss of life could have been prevented if there had being a way to inform neighborhood residents prior to the explosion.

The Web 3.0 systems are designed to evaluate Level 3, 4, and 5 disasters; a Level 3 disaster is considered a serious incident, a Level 4 is a more serious occurrence with local consequences, and a Level 5 is a significantly more serious event with a wider impact. The difference in levels is not necessarily the actual scale of the event, but is the physical impact and psycho-social dimensions and outcomes. At the panel, Michael McDonald, president of Global Health Initiative, Inc, emphasized that a Level 4 disaster places public trust in jeopardy, while a Level 5 disaster shows a collapse in population and society. An example of a Level 5 disaster is the mass migration of people in Detroit with the collapse of the auto industry which resulted in a major decline of the population from 2.3 million people to approximately 800,000 people. However, there are situations where such collapse does not allow for emigration, as in the case of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

David Kaufman, director of policy and program analysis for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), observed that because we live in a world with demographic changes, climate change that has resulted in altering disaster patterns, and resource constraints due to the economy and government spending, an examination into the effects of said changes is warranted. Further, the issues that we as a society are most worried about are beyond the capacity that the government can handle on its own, especially because the disaster is only one variable in an equation that involves underlying situations in the communities. The degree to which we understand these conditions will dictate the ability to connect with the issues through available data, and as such, produce better response and solutions, he said.

David Alberts, former director of command and control research at the Defense Department, said that we can achieve these goals by strengthening methods that have already proven successful and increased focus on research relating to crisis management. Linton Wells, director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University, further noted the importance of training, the use of crowd sourcing mechanisms, and a willingness to work on state and local levels regarding commercial logistics.

Kaufman also mentioned the use of social media for the development of insights and generating data fields in the context of various FEMA projects. In response to a question regarding federal response to intelligence about the risk of a crisis in a community that does not usually experience such risk, e.g., August 2011 earthquake in DC metro area, Kaufman said that FEMA’s approach is to structure large-scale exercises to see how effective community preparation is, stabilize the various factors, and evaluate the existing infrastructure.

The panel also noted that a main objective in achieving the discussed goals is reaching a generation of individuals who have grown up in the digital age and are potential large-scale contributors to this system. However, no particular method of doing so was discussed. Another recommendation was to learn from the events in other countries by observing how teams on the ground responded in moments of crisis, such as examining the Red Cross’ response to a crisis.

In response to a request for policy recommendations, the panel suggested policy changes that would make it easier for the public and private sector to work together. Another recommendation suggested the U.S. government examine the work of the Mud Army in Australia, an army of volunteers and everyday Australians organized on Facebook and Twitter in response to the flood that struck Queensland in 2011.  The U.S. government can learn from this example on how to take advantage of social networks to mobilize a similar response.

Overall, in a time when the general public may be better informed than the responders during a crisis, the nature of governance has changed because the government no longer has definitive information. Any solution would involve building a system that will allow whole societies to share knowledge for the benefit of all, using a convergence of smart phones as social networks to enable a type of governance that can be effective and resolve conflicts, and encouraging a unity of effort in response to crises.

About the author

Olubunmi Emenanjo, JD is an attorney completing her Masters degree in Bioscience Regulatory Affairs at Johns Hopkins University.  She is currently serving as a scholar research assistant with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.  She is studying the patent challenges of synthetic biology and the regulatory impact of synthetic biology on biomedical product development.

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