1 Nov 2012

Can social media help the Sandy relief effort?

With many people still missing and thousands unable to return to their homes, Channel 4 News explores how those affected by Superstorm Sandy are using social media to help.

Can social media help #Sandy relief effort?

When Ceci Monroe was unable to get through to her 73-year-old mother in Hoboken, across the river from Manhattan, she took to the city’s Facebook page for help: “My mother is 73 years old diabetic and lives by herself,” Ms Monroe wrote. “She lives @ 322 Harrison ST Apt # 2-A please if someone can be so kind to go by her place to make sure she is ok.”

And she was not the only one. While the internet was awash with maps forecasting the hurricane’s path during the storm, social media is now playing a hugely important role in its aftermath, helping to find missing people, coordinate the relief effort and to get localised information to communities.

‘We are ok’

Another example is missing brothers Connor and Brandon Moore, who were separated from their mother in Staten Island, after being swept away from her SUV on Monday. Tributes were paid on Twitter as the community shared news reports and sympathies under the #Staten hashtag.

The top two Facebook status updates on 30 October, just as Sandy was wreaking havoc on the east coast, were “we are ok” and updates about “power”, presumably related to the 8 million people who were without it.

“If you compare how people are using their network now to New York during the world trade centre disaster (September 11) – none of this stuff existed,” says Jeanette Sutton, a sociologist with the University of Colorado who specialises in the use of social media in disaster management – and who has funding from Homeland Security to do so.

After September 11, people resorted to posting paper notices with pictures of their loved ones around the streets of Manhattan. Now there is Flickr, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and Google’s Person Finder – to name just a few.

‘Official’ social media

The first time online social networks played a noticeable role in disasters was in 2007, when local people used Twitter to aggregate information and communicate it when southern California was evacuated because of wild fires. “People were so desperate to get information, and the official information wasn’t coming out quickly enough,” Ms Sutton told Channel 4 News.

Post-Sandy, authorities appear more than happy to take to social networks. Large institutions such as the Red Cross through @redcrossny or New York’s fire deprtment on @FDNY, as well as individual public figureheads, have been active in using social media networks, as a crucial way of communicating information.

The University of Colorado team are currently sifting through reams of data from official accounts, which have become less wary of using such channels, and much more dedicated to what were considered informal means of communication.

“There’s been a lot of resistance by officials to adapt these – within organisations there’s been questions about whether it’s appropriate,” Ms Sutton told Channel 4 News. “But whether it’s a source to monitor the crowd, or to push information out there, they have to be part of the conversation – they can’t ignore it.”

New Jersey

One of the areas worst affected by the storm is New Jersey, where a quarter of the population – more than two million people – continued to have no power and more than 20,000 remain trapped in their homes by flood water. The city’s official Facebook page has been on overdrive, asking for blanket donations, organising volunteer groups and communicating vital information about safe drinking water.

Residents have also used the page as a forum to swap information and, like Ms Monroe, ask for people to check in on friends and relatives.

Governor Christie of New Jersey has taken to his twitter account @GovChristie with rigour, tweeting motivational messages and rallying those affected – as well as to praise Barack Obama – while Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey has been constantly tweeting the telephone line for information to his over a million followers and personally responding to requests for help.

Hurricane Hackers

The reliance on the internet and social media is still huge, even when disasters cut out power and internet, adds Ms Sutton: “Those outside of those areas are still actively engaged and pulling together information. There are virtual support teams in places that they can connect into electronically, so when you get back online, all the information is there.”

One of the groups dedicated to helping those affected by natural disasters is Hurricane Hackers, a group of programmers with a social conscience who have developed resources such as maps of evacuation shelters, to help those in the area. It was started by a group at MIT Media Lab and the founders are also organising a SandyCrisis Camp this weekend to help develop more useful programs.

‘You are next to die’

However not all interventions on social media have been helpful.

On Wednesday a tweeter going by the handle @ComfortablySmug tweeted an apology for previous “irresponsible and inaccurate tweets” including the following:

“With bridges shutting down at 7pm, all stranded on the island of Manhattan are effectively left for dead. May God have mercy on your souls” and “If your lights are flickering it DOES NOT mean you are about to lose power. It means you are the next to die.”

The man behind the tweets, unmasked online as hedge-fund manager Shashank Tripathi, has now resigned from his role in as campaign manager for Republican congressional candidate Christopher Wight.

Hurricane Sandy was one of the most documented natural disasters in the world. And as millions of Americans come to terms with continued power cuts, flooding and restricted public transport, there is no doubt that for better or worse, social media will play a huge role in its aftermath.