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Red Cross Unveils Social Media Monitoring Operation

Digital Operations Center, backed by Dell technology, will track social media to help determine where to focus its disaster-relief efforts.

Top 14 Government Social Media Initiatives
Top 14 Government Social Media Initiatives
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In the early hours after the deadly tornadoes in the Midwest last week, social media was abuzz with discussion of injuries, personal fears, and concern about shelter. Thanks to a brand new Digital Operations Center, the American Red Cross was able to reach out directly to individuals and sift through masses of social media data to help determine which localities needed the most help.

While the new center was up and running for the storms last week, the Red Cross officially unveiled the effort Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The Digital Operations Center pulls in social media posts from numerous platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, aggregates that data and creates visualizations with it. According to Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern, the center will give the Red Cross a better idea of what's happening on the ground during a disaster, help the organization detect and track trends, and help connect affected individuals to resources they need.

The center is modeled after Dell's Social Media Listening Command Center, which Dell opened in December 2010. The computer company approached the Red Cross with the idea last summer, and has provided funding and equipment to get the effort off the ground.

[ Learn about another implementation of Dell's social listening center. Read Clemson University CIO Champions Social Listening. ]

"There's no question this is going to aid the efforts of the American Red Cross, and it can be used as a blueprint for other organizations," Dell chairman and CEO Michael Dell said at the launch event.

The core of the Digital Operations Center is's Radian6 social media monitoring service, which pulls in social media and can perform analytics on the data. The Radian6 engagement console, which was up and running on computers at the center Wednesday, displays to those working at the center a stream of social media posts of interest.

The Digital Operations Center also includes visualizations representing social media trends. A "community" screen on Wednesday was displaying graphical icons of social media avatars representing users who had been talking the most about tornadoes in recent hours. A "heat map" showed where around the globe the most Twitter activity about tornadoes was going on. A "conversation dashboard" displayed sentiment analysis, data on volume of posts, popular keywords, and other trends. Finally, the "Red Cross universe" screen showed the words used most often with "tornado" in social media posts.

This data will be used not just to reach out directly to affected individuals via the social media platforms themselves (the Red Cross has been sending people direct messages about the tornado on Twitter, for example). The Red Cross' social engagement team will also be giving daily social media briefs on disasters to help integrate social media data into the Red Cross' on-the-ground response, and workers at the Red Cross' Disaster Operations Center, where the Digital Operations Center is housed, will be encouraged to look at social media data as they do their own jobs.

In concert with the announcement of the Digital Operations Center Wednesday, the Red Cross also announced a new Digital Volunteer Program, which will train volunteers to respond online to questions from the public and distribute disaster-related information.

The entire platform is not yet available to Red Cross employees, volunteers, and first responders in the field, but the Red Cross hopes to make it more widely available. The engagement console itself is and will be available over the Web.

"We're still trying out how best to share data with other organizations," Wendy Harman, director of social engagement for the Red Cross and head of the new center, told InformationWeek in an interview. "This will be a big learning process."

The Red Cross is not going this effort alone. It is also working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the White House, and other organizations. Both FEMA deputy director Richard Serino and White House new media director Macon Phillips were on hand Wednesday for the unveiling.

"The importance of this center cannot be underestimated and the Obama administration is right there with you," Phillips said during the press conference.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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