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Social Media Aids First Responders and Grieving Public After Bombing

Emergency responders walked toward the finish line Monday.

Emergency responders walked toward the finish line Monday. // Winslow Townson/AP

Online social networks have played a role in national emergency response for nearly a decade now. After bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon finish line left three people dead and more than 100 people injured on Monday, Nextgov caught up with observers of social media in emergency management to find out what was new this time.

What’s New?

As social media matures, emergency managers and the public are becoming more adept at separating fact from frenzy in the minutes and hours after a disaster, said Clarence Wardell, an analyst with the safety and security division at the research group CNA .

“It seems as if individuals and the community have grown with this technology,” he said. “With social media in emergencies you’re always going to have a glut of information coming out immediately after the event and there’s always going to be information that’s wrong. But I think people are becoming a bit more cautious about the information they pass along and ensuring it comes from a verified source.”

Emergency responders have also begun to see social media as an integral part of their operations, he said.

Less than half an hour after the attack an official on the Boston police scanner said he needed an officer to “get on social media and let people know what we’re doing here.” Once police secured the area, officers began tweeting verified information.

Police were updating the official Twitter stream every 10 minutes or so in the hours immediately following the attack. This not only helped to disseminate verified information but also helped to combat misinformation, said Kim Stephens, a consultant and lead blogger at idisaster 2.0, which focuses on social media in emergency management.

What Are the New Tools?

New tools characterized the response to the marathon attack, particularly six-second mobile videos from the Twitter service Vine. Observers and news agencies used Vine to distribute videos of the bombings and later to record the public response to the bombings and citizens' grief.

Google used the Person Finder system it developed in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake to help locate missing people after the bombing. The Google tool has become more popular with each tragedy, Wardell said, and could become a standard tool for the public to rely on during disasters.

What’s Different This Time?

Unlike the response to Hurricane Sandy, which battered the New York and New Jersey coastline in October 2012, there was no buildup or advance warning for the marathon bombing. That meant people searching for information on social media were going in with much less preparation, Wardell said.

On the other hand, the event’s short timeframe limited opportunities for the sort of intentionally misleading tweets and doctored photos that characterized the Sandy social media response, Stephens said.

What’s Become Routine?

Crowdsourcing photos and video have become the norm when disasters strike, experts said.

Boston police asked for photos and videos of the marathon finish line on Twitter within hours of the first blast. Commissioner Edward Davis repeated that call during a news conference Tuesday morning. He also asked people offering video to note when and where they were taken so police wouldn’t have to sort through video metadata.  

Social media served different functions for different people, as in previous disasters.

“Social media is a little bit like watching a movie in 3-D instead of 2-D,” Stephens said. “In 3-D you have a lot of different things happening, and depending on where you sit you have different perspectives. If I have a family member or friend in Boston, I’ll come to social media to see if their status is updated. If I’m a first responder, I’m going to see if people posted video or other content that will help me solve this terrible crime. If I’m a volunteer, I’m going to turn to social media to see where I can provide services.”

What Now?

While local, state and federal law enforcement continue to search for bombing suspects, people affected by the bombing will likely turn to social media for solace, support and a sense of community, Stephens said. One Facebook group Boston Support had already been launched early Tuesday.

What’s Next?

As social media’s role in emergency management develops, officials should expect to see more informal conventions developing around its use, Wardell said, and more standard tools such as Google’s People Finder.

The prevalence of crowdsourced video of an event also is likely to grow significantly over the next decade, Stephens said, especially if Google Glass, glasses that can record at a moment’s notice, become popular. If a few people are wearing Google glasses when a bombing or some other disaster occurs, investigators could count on having multiple high-quality recordings of an event, she said.  

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