McCormick Investigates the Use of Social Media in Disaster Management

Although most disaster managers in the United States are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools that capitalize on crowdsourcing, a range of policy and institutional obstacles may be preventing the effective use of new tools, according to new research by Associate Professor Sabrina McCormick of the Milken Institute School of Public Health of the George Washington University. 

High visibility events, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, when residents and clean-up workers used social media to upload information about the impacts of the disaster, make clear what a key role the new tools can play in enhancing public awareness.  This crowdsourced information was “the only real-time, although unverifiable, data about the worst environmental disaster in United States history,” McCormick observes. 

Little research has investigated on how these tools are used in disaster planning, response and recovery in our country.  To help fill this information vacuum, McCormick conducted research at disaster management sites across the Eastern seaboard and in several Western states to investigate how emergency managers are using the new technologies.

“Emergency management tools are in a state of transition,” McCormick says.  Emergency managers with high levels of resources, including groups in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, appear to be doing a good job of incorporating social media and crowdsourcing into emergency management.  Other groups with fewer resources may not use social media and crowdsourcing due to concerns including fears about accuracy, her investigation showed.  Leadership and exposure to these tools also play a role in emergency managers’ embrace of the new tools. 

McCormick documented a range of policy and institutional obstacles which can prevent the effective use of new tools.  These include issues with staffing and the reality that the standardization of practices and professional norms may make those emergency managers who do begin to use the tools face an additional layer of problems, she says.

McCormick is calling for additional research to investigate more comprehensively how the tools are used.  She hopes to identify whether they truly benefit emergency responders and their constituents and, if they are beneficial, how they can best be implemented.

New tools for emergency managers: assessing the obstacles to their use and implementation” was published in Disasters Journal.