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1/19/2011
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FEMA To Use Social Media For Emergency Response

Administrator Craig Fugate discusses the agency's plans to employ text messaging, GPS, and other tools for improved 'situational awareness' and disaster relief.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to engage the public more in disaster response by sharing data and leveraging reports from mobile phones and social media, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said today.

People are increasingly connected in disaster areas, and FEMA needs to factor that into its disaster planning, Fugate said in a keynote speech at ESRI's government user conference in Washington, D.C. As an example, Fugate pointed to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where rescue workers and survivors used text messages, e-mail, and social media to communicate amid chaotic and dangerous conditions.

"One of our assumptions has been that when there's a big disaster, we lose all communications, we lose all wireless," Fugate said in a follow-up interview. "Haiti was sort of a validation that that's no longer the case. We can adjust much quicker if we can figure out how to have this two-way conversation and if we can look at the public as a resource. The public is putting out better situational awareness than many of our own agencies can."

Fugate, who regularly posts on Twitter himself, said FEMA is building applications for popular mobile platforms and that he is pushing to establish more open data feeds. "These are the baby steps," he said. "Government has to change the mentality that, love it or hate it, you have to adapt to us. We need to adapt to them."

FEMA is engaging the private sector and the public to determine how best to take advantage of open data, social media, and two-way interaction to improve disaster response. Fugate has met with Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and other companies, and FEMA is using Challenge.gov to seek ideas more widely through crowdsourcing. The private sector and groups like Random Hacks of Kindness will be represented at FEMA's annual disaster recovery event this year.

For example, in its disaster recovery scenario, FEMA could ask retailers which of their stores are closed, then overlay that information on a map to provide food aid to areas where needed. It could also set up mesh WiFi networks to enable people who lose cell or Internet service to communicate using WiFi-enabled mobile devices.

Fugate advocates leveraging personalized information, as well. "If you talk to social scientists and ask how to get people to change their behavior, they say information that's personalized is much more important," he said. For example, an app could be developed by FEMA or a third party that uses GPS to provide location-specific information to a person, such as weather updates or turn-by-turn directions to a site where the agency is providing aid.

Open data is a big part of Fugate's thinking. "Free the data," he said. "We need to leverage the investment we've made by putting the data in the hands of the public. If you look at a lot of government Web sites, [the government] determined how [information] was going to be seen and you had to go to their site to see it. Instead of doing that, why not put out the data feeds?"

Central to FEMA's strategy are geospatial data and mapping applications. One new FEMA app, called SAVER, maps emergency declarations, earthquakes, models of building failures, status and location of relief facilities, and the progression of search operations. SAVER integrates with Microsoft's Bing search to provide a birds-eye view of maps, and disaster relief workers can send SMS updates from the field that are integrated with the maps.

To manage such efforts, FEMA is looking to hire a "geospatial information officer," a new position within the agency, Fugate said.

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