This past week was pretty incredible.
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know already that I was in Washington D.C. with a host of other friends and folks for the White House Innovation Day. You should read my friend, Kevin Sur’s post about this rather incredible experience. Another post from Kyle Richardson is available at this link.
Rather than recount similarly, I thought I’d blog today on the messages both shared and observed throughout this trip of a lifetime.
The purpose of our visit was clear: To identify and evaluate the existing challenges surround the use of collaborative technologies and big data in emergency response.
Simply? Why aren’t every day first responders using social media and data to inform key decisions?
And, over the course of 36 hours, I was able to sit in meetings at the White House, FEMA, Senate, House of Representatives and at our #DC Tweetup that was attended by #SMEM friends, contractors and tech agencies who were discussing these same issues in-depth, resulting in these key messages:
“Whole Community” Needs Refinement:
While I’ll be the first to tell you that I firmly believe in the notion of “whole community” because I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to engage in emergency response, public agencies still struggle with how to incorporate the voice of its residents and digital technology providers. We still see many technology providers aiming to fit their products into the disaster services sphere without the direct involvement of emergency service providers. And, while often, we can see some decent applications of technology, it occurs more by happenstance and not by direct intentional engagement. In order to be effective, the idea of “whole community” needs to be defined such that it provides quality roles for public safety agencies, other government entities, students, volunteers, private sector, and NGO’s.
Rather than Creating Technology Solutions, Government Should Develop Trust & Meaningful Engagement with Tech Developers
Emergency responders should not be making technology and conversely, technology providers should not be leading the emergency response. For years, we have seen public agencies recreate the technical wheels of ideas that were often first birthed in the private sector. For example, government has attempted versions of social networks and damage reporting tools that look similar to both Facebook and Instagram, but few of the public apps have ever caught on in the public sphere like the ones more widely accepted. We have to develop trust and meaningful engagement between both groups so that people can lend their expert perspective into the development of technology and so that we are truly solving problems in a meaningful way.
Resistance to Social Media is Primarily Cultural & Resource-Based
While we still encounter people who are simply opposed to social media, the primary reluctance is often a deficit in the time & space to learn how to use collaborative technologies. And while those of us who use social media know that it allows us to become situationally aware more quickly, to the emergency manager who doesn’t yet use social media, the perception still exists that it is “one more thing to learn or manage.” And, perceptually, this remains a barrier.
Sidenote: I’m not sure how that perception is helped when we highlight 20 new applications that could be used for emergency response. Frankly, there needs to be a vetting service or ability for the community to highlight the apps that work well during emergency response. The presence of so many options can, in turn, become cumbersome to someone who just doesn’t yet know where to begin.
There is More Than One Way to Achieve Situational Awareness: Help Is Available
As I sat near Emergency Managers who were feeling overwhelmed by social media, I found myself sharing very openly about the use of virtual teams. If you are an Emergency Manager who isn’t sure how to harness social media, you don’t have to do it by yourself. There are many groups using people to monitor social media and provide key information directly to emergency management organizations. Most notably, Virtual Operation Support Teams (VOST) have been working in many states and countries to develop trusted relationships with emergency management organizations. Other groups like the Red Cross Digital Volunteers and Humanity Road have also been working in this sphere over the past several years.
“Virtual” Teams Are Not Synonymous with “Volunteer” Teams
While many of the virtual teams that exist today are staffed by volunteers, it is important to note that this model does not provide long-term sustainability. Many virtual teams may provide solid assistance for 3-5 days; however, in nearly every after-action report, team leaders report that the sustainability of their service can be problematic or reliant on 1-2 individuals. It is important to recognize that social media monitoring does take time and effort and that pulling people away from day jobs to accomplish this can only be done long-term if you are able to reassign members of your own organizations to accomplish these goals. Otherwise, it will be important to evaluate how we can build this capacity to support longer duration events.
Virtual Teams Should Be Resource-Typed and Credentialed
If you followed me around, you heard me say this more than once. Many federal organizations are still wrestling with where virtual teams should reside in the emergency response framework. While staffed by volunteers, it is easy to say “let’s make them another Citizen Corp team” along with our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) folks. But I strongly disagree. Virtual Teams are providing key information into the emergency response directly to emergency response entities. As such, they need to be credentialed and given credibility like any other communication-team or communications-based asset.
We currently use our community volunteer teams differently. Often, they are taking on tasks that emergency responders don’t have time for or are distracting emergency responders from completing their life-safety missions. While important, volunteer teams are usually at different levels of the emergency response with different types of missions. Virtual Teams that are providing situational awareness are not operating independently of emergency responders, and in fact, may be engaging with them very directly. As such, like a COM-L or COM-T, we need to give some thought to what resource-typing these task forces looks like to enhance the delivery of consistent service across emergency response.
I’m sure there were many more talking points that I missed, but needless to say, it was a true honor and privilege to be invited to attend this event and all of the surrounding events that were a part of my trip back to Washington D.C.
Special thanks to Martha Braddock (@msbraddock) of IAEM who coordinated many of the meetings on my first day in town. And, another word of thanks to Doc Lumpkins (@find_doc) of FEMA who invited us in for some fun early morning conversation as well.