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FEMA Taps Behavior Side of Social Media

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By Andrew Lapin February 17, 2012

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Somewhere buried within the wealth of personal information on Facebook and Twitter is a basic, scientific need to communicate, and FEMA wants to work with that.

At an event concerning the role social media plays in government crisis management co-hosted by Global Health Initiative, Inc. and the National Defense University, a representative from FEMA discussed the behavioral science in social media and how that can be leveraged in disaster response.

"People's decisions in crisis are inherently social," said David Kaufman, director of policy and analysis at FEMA. "The average person checks in with 4-5 other people before deciding what to do under mandatory evacuation order. And if you don't believe me, look around the next time you're in a building and the fire alarm goes off."

Kaufman said that behavioral science has led to an "explosion in our understanding of how people make choices, what informs those choices." FEMA, he said, has "only begun to think about the applicability" of the platform.

Kaufman, who noted that government's aggregation capabilities are "insufficient" for handling the wealth of social information, said FEMA has quickly learned how to engage the public in the wake of large-scale disasters in order to implement social media into the rebuilding process.

Because, as Kaufman said, "the public is always the first responder," there is tremendous potential for government to better engage with civilians in times of crisis.

When an audience member asked what would happen to a social media-focused emergency management unit in the event of a large-scale power outage, Kaufman acknowledged such a process would become difficult, noting, "There's no silver bullet, there's no panacea, that's going to address all these issues."

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