On the Nonfeasance of Your Warning Systems

Rick Russotti, from Mitigation Journal,
tweeted me a question on my feelings about what’s going on in Italy. No, not
that mess, this one:

Seven scientists and other experts went on trial on manslaughter charges
Tuesday for allegedly failing to sufficiently warn residents before a
devastating earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy in
2009.

Wait, what?

Yes, scientists are being prosecuted for not predicting the unpredictable.
My initial feelings are that this is BS. Unfortunately, in the court of
international justice, my feelings are obviously not taken into
consideration. My concerns, as a result, lean towards the ripples that this
event will cause. And boy do I worry about these ripples. Not so much
because of the Italian situation, but because of this NOAA report on the
Joplin tornado
(PDF):

The vast majority of Joplin residents did not immediately take protective
action upon receiving a first indication of risk (usually via the local
siren system), regardless of the source of the warning. Most chose to
further assess their risk by waiting for, actively seeking, and filtering
additional information.

Did you get that? Residents were warned, and because of the poor effect of
that warning, did not react in a protective manner. Almost like the Italian
situation (not exactly, you understand, but close). People died because they
chose not to heed the warning.

Now, what does that mean? Well, for us in the emergency warning and
emergency public information world, LOTS. NOAA has come to the conclusion
that the warnings employed immediately prior to an EF-5 tornado ripping
through a town were ineffective. Throughout the Midwest and South, those
very same systems are the primary means of warning people in the event of a
tornado. See where this could be problematic? Now think about what this
means in the context of what’s happening in Italy.

Wow.

Now, think about your emergency warning systems. How confident are you that
they’ll be effective? And realize the difference between working and
effectiveness. Your testing to make sure the system works may actually be
making the system less effective.

Now, you know me, I like to propose solutions when I can, so here’s my best
attempt. Review your current alerting systems. Write them all down. Honestly
write down the pros and cons. Take, for example, your siren warnings.
They’re familiar, and they work, but they’re also only auditory (so deaf
folks, and people with their car stereos too loud, and people with
headphones won’t get the warning), and they’re not made for people inside
buildings to hear, and they tend to over-project the warning (tornadoes are
only a tiny sliver of rotation, while a siren warns for miles), and they’re
non-specific (a specific criticism in Finding #2a in the Joplin report), and
well, they’re familiar and easily tuned out. Should this be your only means
of warning the public? Probably not.

So, let’s get some more warning systems. I would argue the most important
step is the aggressive implementation of a robust and constantly-manned
social media and text-messaging presence (used in concert with all other
forms of warning). Emergency warnings from these systems can be pushed to
the phones (which are a great and growing presence in the pockets and purses
of Americans), immediately alerting folks of dangers specifically (potential
storm, rotation confirmed, funnel traveling down Second Avenue, etc.), and
can be used as confirmatory messages (addressed in Finding #2d of the Joplin
report) due to constant updates in emergency situations.

(As for the reliability of these tools, it is important to note that no
system is infallible and may fail as infrastructure degrades or is
overwhelmed. It’s a concern that is not special to text messaging or social
media. In fact, more and more cases studies of recent disasters are showing the viability—if not
reliability—of social media in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In
fact, as shown in this blog post from Google,
Internet searches especially about a particular disaster are higher what
you’d reflexively think in the affected area. People who have been in a
disaster search for information on the disaster online.)

Since you’re here, you probably understand the need for integration of
social media into emergency notification, so I really don’t have to sell you
too much. But that one guy or gal, who’s probably in a key position, who
doesn’t believe that social media can help, or is a waste of time, or is
scary? Ask them if they’d rather start a Facebook page, or sit in court and
defend the idea that their using an antiquated warning system does not make
them guilty of manslaughter.

Via Boingboing.net: Sweating Soccer Player

First, the background, this is an artificially speeded up press conference with Uruguayan strike Walter Pandiani. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I wonder about his, um, presentation.

So, let’s do some role playing, shall we? What if you were a Communications Director and your spokesperson looked like this. How would you respond?

The Problem With Your Facebook Content

This is not a happy post, and it will not solve any problems. Sorry.

As many of our agencies begin using social media as a part of their
outreach and public information work, we find that our PIOs and
Communications Directors, who have always had a full plate, are having
trouble finding the time to fully integrate social media into their
day-to-day work. And that’s troublesome on a number of levels.

First, the only thing worse than NOT having a social media presence
these days is having a presence that is moribund, out-of-date, silent.
Many Directors and PIOs understand this and employ all manner of
tricks and tips to post to all of the relevant social media networks.
They utilize programs like Hootsuite,
Tweetdeck, Ping.fm,
and Dlvr.it to write a post and have that post
propagate to all of the agencies’ social media accounts. (For those
who aren’t looking for ways to better integrate social media, for
shame!)

Second, and newly discovered, is that those tricks and tips aren’t
always the best way to do things. It turns out that Facebook (the most
popular and highly trafficked social network in the world) penalizes
posts that are submitted via third-party tools. From
Adage.com:

A service called EdgeRank Checker revealed data this week that showed how using a third-party application — like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck — to update your Facebook Page decreases your engagement per fan (on average) by about 70%.

The study speculates that decrease in engagement could be due to one,
or several, of the following reasons:

  • Facebook penalizes third-party API’s EdgeRank
  • Facebook collapses third-party API updates
  • Scheduled or automated posts have potential for lower engagement
  • The content is not optimized for Facebook

The first seems proprietary, and kind of “black box-y,” so I feel okay
ignoring it. The rest I wholeheartedly agree with.

First up, the third and fourth on the AdAge list. When would you
schedule your posts for if your audience was college-aged? Middle-aged
mothers? Teenage boys who game? Please, please tell me that the
answers aren’t all 8:30 to 3:30. if they are, you’re not adequately
reaching your audience, so that’s why they aren’t engaging. Also, make
sure that the message matches the medium. To limit oneself to 140
characters and no threading conversations (like on Twitter) when
you’ve got Facebook’s 420 characters and ability to solicit responses
is the same as leaving money on the table.

Finally, collapsing. I’ve seen this on my own Pages and account. The
latest post will be displayed in full, with a link underneath that
says something like, “See 3 more posts from Tweetdeck.” Clicking that
gives access to all of your vetted, approved, rewritten, perfect
posts. How many of your Facebook page fans will click that link? And
even worse than that is that Facebook will collapse posts from
different accounts based n which third-party tool submitted it. So,
if your agency and three other Pages that you fan has liked use the
same tool, it’s possible that your fans might never see your posts.

Scary!

And just yesterday, in anticipation of the upcoming Facebook
conference, f8, word has come out that the company is revamping it’s
famous News Feed. And the changes means tons for Page Administrators.
TechCrunch
says:

Facebook is rolling out an updated version of News Feed that does away with the two-tabbed interface that it’s had for two years now. Before now you’d have to swap between ‘Top Stories’ (a feed of stories that Facebook thought were important) and ‘Most Recent’ (a feed of your friends’ most recent actions on the site).

Facebook will now merge both types of content into the same feed, intelligently determining how much screen real estate to allocate to ‘Top Stories’ based on how recently you’ve logged into the site. If you’re checking Facebook ten times a day at work, then most of the items in your feed will be recent; if you’re logging in for the first time in the few days, Facebook will try to give you an overview of the most important things your friends have shared.

Does Facebook think that your posts are “Top Stories?” Well, if all of
your posts are getting collapsed and are posted when none of your
audience is looking, they probably won’t. And if that’s the case,
well, what’s the point?

This social media thing, man, you’ve got to keep an eye on it.

Guilty by Algorithm

danah boyd (yes, no capitals), who I
believe is one of the top two or three smartest people in the whole
world, has an amazing post up this week that really gave me pause.
Guilt Through Algorithmic
Association

is a post very similar to the types of posts I write in that it brings
up some really complex problem with no solution. It asks questions
that have no good answers. It tickles your brain and ultimately leaves
you more depressed about where our technology and world are taking
us—if only because we haven’t yet though through all of the
ramifications of our actions. But, man!, does it make you think.

Dr. boyd is an expert in young people’s issues and has relatedly
become an expert in how young folks interact and live online. The
subjects of her research generally place her on the bleeding edge of
what’s next, what’s going to be a problem and how things that are
seemingly good for society end up ostracizing the most vulnerable.

The Algorithm post is all about something similar to the old
“googlebombing” trick from
2004. You remember the “waffle” thing for John Kerry and “miserable
failure” thing for George W. Bush. To do that trick, a person had to
actually change a website (using search engine optimization
techniques) to influence the algorithm and produce the desired result.
An identifiable person or group did something. This problem is much
more subtle, and to the best of my understanding, a perpetrator-less
crime. Dr. Boyd describes it thusly:

You’re a 16-year-old Muslim kid in America. Say your name is Mohammad Abdullah. Your schoolmates are convinced that you’re a terrorist. They keep typing in Google queries likes “is Mohammad Abdullah a terrorist?” and “Mohammad Abdullah al Qaeda.” Google’s search engine learns. All of a sudden, auto-complete starts suggesting terms like “Al Qaeda” as the next term in relation to your name.

See the difference? This isn’t a person slandering you, they’re just
searching for you. The money line:

It’s one thing to be slandered by another person on a website, on a blog, in comments. It’s another to have your reputation slandered by computer algorithms. The algorithmic associations do reveal the attitudes and practices of people, but those people are invisible; all that’s visible is the product of the algorithm, without any context of how or why the search engine conveyed that information. What becomes visible is the data point of the algorithmic association. But what gets interpreted is the “fact” implied by said data point, and that gives an impression of guilt.

I make no effort to minimize Dr. boyd’s horrific scenario (which she
says she’s heard real cases of), but worry about how something similar
could happen to us, to our agencies. Imagine you’re responding to some
emergency, disease outbreak, oil spill, wildland fire. Some members of
the public, say locals, for whatever reason are unhappy about the
response. They think you’re only focused on remediation in a way that
benefits you (giving out vaccine, mass doses of dispersant, focus on
rich neighborhoods) to the detriment of the general public.
Enterprising bloggers start searching online for proof of a
conspiracy. “Is the Mayor taking bribes?” “Does the vaccine cause
autism?” Not posting, just searching. As interest in the situation
grows, more and more people start to look for information online. They
head to their favorite search engine and type in your agency name, and
the auto-prompt suggests that you guys are taking bribes and giving
autism and hate African-Americans. Even if you’re WAY ahead of the
situation and have materials designed to combat that way of thinking,
the first thing the public sees is your name tied to unsavory
practices. The frame of reference has already been set.

The tricky part is that no one is at fault. An algorithm associated
you with some level of guilt. No one did anything malicious or
untowards. How can you possibly fix that? Or even identify that it’s a
problem? Nothing actually changed or happened, it’s just suggested
that you might be taking bribes.

And the more and more our society comes to depend more and more on
machine-based suggestions, this tone-deafness will only get worse.
Until sentience, of course. And then we’ve got a bigger fish to fry.

Think Smaller

We spend a lot of time in our little social media (#SMEM) bubble,
talking about how vital it is for government agencies, first and
second responders, and the human service industry to be “present” on
social media. It’s the future, we say. It’s trendy, your executive
says.

And all of that is true. It’s just not the whole story. Nor the why.

You see, there are two reasons that social media is so critical to
crisis communications. The first “why” is because that’s where the
audience is. Study
(Neilsen, 2011) after
study
(Pew, 2011) after
study
(American Red Cross, 2011) has shown that Americans use social media
as a big part of their lives. And that big part, it just keeps getting
bigger. I’ve yet to see a study that has demonstrated a decrease in
either the percentage of people on social networks, or time spent on
social media sites. You can yell as loud as you want, but if you’re
talking to your publics, they’re probably not going to hear you.

The other “why” is mobility. It’s easy to get updates via social media
when you’re not at a computer. Like y’know, when you’re in the middle
of a crisis or disaster. Whether it’s using dedicated smartphone apps
(e.g., Facebook,
Tumblr, Twitter,
etc.) or tools like Twitter
FastFollow
, people can
utilize their phone (which everyone has these days) to get more
information. Proof? From the Nielsen study:

Nearly 40% of social media users access social media content from their mobile phone

Internet users over the age of 55 are driving the growth of social networking through the Mobile Internet

From a 2010 Pew survey on mobile
use
:

Compared with 2009, cell phone owners ages 30-49 are significantly more likely to use their mobile device to send text messages, access the internet, take pictures, record videos, use email or instant messaging, and play music

In total, 64% of African-Americans access the internet from a laptop or mobile phone, a seven-point increase from the 57% who did so at a similar point in 2009.

But that’s not the whole story. Sure social media is great, but it
(say it with me) is just one tool in the toolbox. You still have to
have a place for press conferences and letterhead for releases and a
website. Hey, your website! Since we’ve already established the social
media users are using mobile means of accessing social media, why not
head over to our local government website on our phones and check
out… Oh, yeah it doesn’t really fit. And the pictures and animation
are all missing. The drop-down menus screw everything up…

Someone needs help building a mobile website. And fast.

The Sensei Marketing
blog
posits these
things to more fully utilize mobile websites:

  • Create a mobile status page for your company’s live crisis updates
  • Allow it to localize the updates by zip/postal code
  • Add to the ability to text updates to customers automatically
  • Integrate the service with field teams so that when they roll into
    an area, customers know
  • Hook it into your social accounts so overly concerned customers can
    communicate with someone
  • Let them share it with others easily; enable your customers to help
    you manage the crisis and disseminate official news and updates.

Do you have any other tips for building a mobile website, especially
as it relates to crisis response and communication?

One more thing, just because in between writing this post and posting
it, I heard from one of my social media heroes, Andrew
Wilson
who was casting about
for ideas on the future of the communication
team
.
One of his most immediate suggestions was for the inclusion of mobile
technologies specialists on the team. Great minds and all that. =)

Via The Enlightened PIO: Understand the new role of PIOs

Public information officers used to deal with information–it’s right in their name. But now they need to think differently. PIOs are now in the business of relationship management.

So I found a new blog. Expect me to crib this guy’s stuff for weeks/months.

How could I not, give THE VERY FIRST LINE of this post?

Not so much focus on emergencies or crises or government vs. private, but the basic ideas that undercut all of that? Oh yeah, they’re all there.

And apparently, his blog is turning into a book! Check it out at www.theenlightenedPIO.com.

Disaster World

Texas is burning, and not like the Clash warned London would.
Months of no rainfall, and high temperatures regularly over 100 degrees have
conspired to turn the state into a tinderbox. It was only a matter of time
before:

Bastrop fire
CC-licensed by Stephen To

Boingboing.net contributor Jasmina Tesanovic visited the wildfires this
past weekend to report on them. There was a line in her article that struck
a chord in me. It was a summation line, and there was a focus on science
that interested me less. But the first part—the first part of the line
resonated.

Disaster scenes are the new normality: with blurry but efficient
technologies that witness the death of progress, the denial of science.

Disaster scenes ARE the new normal. With blurry but always available
technologies, we see into the worst days, every day.

I remember spending the afternoon of 9/11/01 pasted to the television
screen. What would my reaction be today? Would I get streaming video from
inside the buildings? Would I see more that I couldn’t unsee? Would my
trauma, felt 80 miles away from Ground Zero, color my future? Change how I
see future disasters? Would my perceptions of future risks have been
altered?

I like to talk about how we need to engage our publics before an emergency
in the interest of getting them ready. But at the end of the day, some will
be ready and most won’t be. Like always.

I wonder, though, how much thinking have we done for after the emergency.
After the spotlight has moved on and those most closely affected begin
silently rebuilding. What then?

Do we use that disaster to teach our publics how to get ready for next time?
Do we just go back to regularly scheduled programming? Do we reach out to
those affected by the visceral images that come from seemingly everywhere in
a disaster? Do we rethink what we do? Do we tell the public what we found
after rethinking?

The world is an increasingly violent place with cameras everywhere. And we
have no control over what people see. Since what they’ve seen affects what
we do, what can we do to mitigate the trauma that is inflicted and do we
have a responsibility to do that?