Social media and smartphones transforming emergency response

The dissemination of information, as well as survivors’ initial responses to natural and man-made disasters have been dramatically altered by the increased ubiquity of smartphones. This includes both how information is disseminated, as well as how survivors respond to the incident. The January 12th earthquake in Haiti provides the most recent example of how behaviors are changing. In a post today, TechPresident breaks down how social media and technology are transforming emergency response and disaster relief:

Initial news out of Haiti after the earthquake came primarily through cellphones, gathered and disseminated by social media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, and agencies such as the State Department have used Twitter and Facebook to spread news about the response. A survivor pulled from the rubble after 65 hours treated his serious injuries using a first aid app. on his iPhone.

As vital as these technologies’ critical role in sharing information is, there’s an equally important but less understood factor that no other communications medium offers: mobile devices plus social media promote exactly the kind of ad hoc collaborative behavior that experts say is vital in disaster situations.

For thirty years, researchers at the Universities of Colorado and Delaware (the premier institutions for preparation and response studies) have proven that the public does not panic in a disaster. Instead, studies “have consistently shown that at times of great crises, much of the organized behavior is emergent [i.e., complex – and effective – strategies emerge from a large number of relatively simple acts by individuals] rather than traditional…it is of a very decentralized nature, with the dominance of pluralistic decision making, and the appearance of imaginative and innovative new attempts to cope with the contingencies that typically appear in major disasters.”