Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may already be the community’s first port of call for updates during a crisis – but social media will soon play an official role in emergency response to natural disasters, according to a leading Australian spatial technology expert.
Esri Australia Chief Technology Strategist Josh Venman said cutting-edge Geographic Information System (GIS) technology that maps the location of social media posts had given crowdsourced information new credibility amongst emergency services organisations. Speaking from the Information Sharing for Emergency Management Conference in Australia today, Mr Venman said many of the nation’s emergency services organisations were eager to fast-track their GIS technology infrastructure to include more direct integration with social media feeds before the next natural disaster strikes.
“We work with Australia’s largest emergency service organisations and departments, and they are taking social media very seriously as a new information source,” Mr Venman said. “Members of the community already use social media to upload and exchange enormous amounts of information during disasters – such as a photo of a bridge that is damaged, or video footage of flood waters rising. “Advanced GIS technology provides context to this information by pinpointing its exact location and translating it into real time, accurate maps of a disaster as it unfolds. “By mapping tweets, Flickr photos and YouTube clips during a crisis, response personnel can gain a powerful new perspective of a situation to support decision-making – such as where resources are needed most and the safest and quickest deployment routes. “I anticipate that within the next two years, most of Australia’s major emergency response organisations will be integrating social media with their GIS technology for this very reason.” Mr Venman said a recent study by the US Red Cross revealed 65 per cent of people use social media to contact loved ones during the first hour of a natural disaster.
“As you can see, the information is out there – the challenge has been for emergency services organisations to make sense of it,” Mr Venman said. “This is where GIS technology has played such a defining role – because it can immediately reveal the location of a social media post, and help users verify how it fits into the larger picture.” Mr Venman said already, organisations such as Brisbane City Council (BCC) and the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA) used GIS technology to add meaning to social media posts. “During the 2011 Queensland flood disasters, these organisations were lauded internationally for using GIS technology to map crowd sourced data to bolster their emergency response,” said Mr Venman. “With the QRA in particular, it represented one of the first times this had occurred on such a large scale – and was so well-regarded the World Bank selected it as a model other countries to follow. “Australia is already among the world’s most progressive nations in terms of leveraging social media during disasters. “Using GIS technology to use this information for emergency response is the inevitable next step.”
The Information Sharing for Emergency Management Conference brought together executives from emergency services, Federal, State and Local Government to discuss the need for emergency services, governments and utilities to have timely access to accurate and relevant information before, during and after a disaster.