Can the Government Join the 21st Century?

Photo Credit: European Space Agency

The new fascination with social media. I don’t get it. People (i.e. the media, politicians, appointees) are all running around surprised at the prevalent use of social media as a means of calling for help and generally communicating during Harvey and predicting it will be the same as Irma wreaks havoc on the southeast.

Photo Credit: Jill Carson



Hello?! Has everybody forgotten that since – oh I don’t know, 2007 or so people have turned to social media. Virginia Tech saw the widespread use of Facebook. Wildfires in the west over the last decade have all involved a huge social media presence. Superstorm Sandy anyone? Have we all become so focused on the “now” and our phones that we can’t remember a couple of years back? Sadly the answer is apparently yes, and that’s a whole other topic to explore and why that’s bad all the way around.

Social media – or rather it’s slower cousin, blogging, was the catalyst that drove me to institute one of the first social media programs in emergency management when I was the Deputy at San Francisco DEM back in 2008. Costco Busan – a classic tale of ship hits bridge and oil pours into water – taught us that we could NOT ignore what was happening on the internet. People talk.

If you’re not part of the conversation (yes, I’m looking at you government) you’re going to miss out.

In the past week I’ve been interviewed twice for stories on this topic. Once for NPR’s All Things Considered and just a day or so ago for USA Today. In both cases the reporters were a) surprised that government doesn’t actively watch social media for distress calls, and b) that social media use was so prevalent. The only factor that makes social media use in Harvey so much more “prevalent” is the sheer scope of the disaster and the numbers of people using it.

“Communities have been doing this stuff as long as you’ve had humans,” says Dudgeon. “Social media, as far as I’m concerned, is a force multiplier for the inherent good of the community.”

-USA Today

Now before y’all go sideways and want to argue about it I will concede this: the way social media is used and number of actions driven by it has evolved. Why wouldn’t it? Social media is fully integrated now and people are developing more sophisticated ways to utilize it – like self-directed resource allocation in the ad hoc world of convergent disaster relief.

The bottom line here is that government must get up to speed with society at large. People are going to reach out on social media, and while I’m a huge fan of the Cajun Navy and the countless other relief movements sometimes the best resource is an “official” one. It’s ridiculous to tell people the only way to reach government resources is make a phone call.

We might as well tell them to send a pigeon.

Is this a hard problem? Yes. Should we be working like hell to solve it? Yes. So here’s a suggestion: Instead of spending millions every year on Homeland Security grants that are largely used by the states and big cities for “sustainment” (aka salaries and maintenance of stuff they bought years ago), which was never the intent of said grants, why don’t we cut the entitlement spending a bit and put some effort into solving bigger, systemic problems – like effectively integrating social media as a communications platform into emergency response.

The technology exists. NextGen 911 is a thing – deployed in a few areas. With some colleagues I’m starting a(nother) project to look at AI as a way to better manage the data coming in. What’s needed is some leadership and a Moonshot Goal so we can stop being “surprised” by what’s happening every day.

I mean really – the President of the United States is on Twitter…one can argue the value of that all day long…but nonetheless it’s kind of clear sign that social media is an accepted, integrated communications platform and government needs to stop fretting and take action.

People are literally dying as a result of government’s inability to keep pace. From Congress to every city council – you all owe a huge debt of gratitude to every person who sees the social media flare and channels it to somebody on the ground who can take action. People will help each other. I firmly believe in the good of community. However, that does not mean government should be allowed to abdicate its responsibility to keep the peace and protect lives and property. That’s the compact you made with we the people when we agreed to be governed by you. Get on it, or get out of the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *