Another Disaster Communications Tool

We’re still waiting on a good opportunity to take the Red Cross Twitter channel for a test drive, but it’s time to think even bigger.

My whole foray into social media was my desire to be intensely lazy use technology to make my job easier. The initial frustration was the deluge of messages that came faster than they could be processed. There has to be a way to automate.

Twitter logoThe Red Cross Twitter channel is designed to push information out. For instance, those on the interstate evacuation routes might text “FOLLOW REDCROSS” to 40404, and essentially sign up for Twitter on the fly. They might get updates about where the nearest open shelters are, or where they can seek additional information. Then by sending “LEAVE REDCROSS” to 40404, they unsubscribe.

As useful as this might be, it’s only feasible in a real-time event as an outgoing tool. No time to read incoming messages. (You’ll notice I am not following anyone else. This is not a game to see how many friends the Red Cross has. Someone who subscribes to the wrong RSS feed and gets inundated with Friend updates will quickly tune out.) No, we need another tool for incoming messages, and the most pressing need involves removing uncertainty about the safety of loved ones.

During Hurricane Katrina, there were several organizations that ran to the void, trying to establish online databases with information about disaster victims’ safety. Ignoring for a moment the privacy and security concerns, it’s just not smart to have eight competing databases. I register in three of them, and you check two I didn’t know about. In that spirit, the American Red Cross and several other organizations combined their resources and expertise, and we now have a consolidated effort: Safe and Well.

Safe and Well is made up of two parts: a place for evacuees to register themselves, and a search enabled side for loved ones seeking information. There were a lot of internal conversations about privacy. For instance, what if Constance Frey wants her parents to know she’s okay, but doesn’t want her abusive estranged boyfriend to find her? Essentially, those searching will find nothing more than a simple note:

  • I am safe and well.
  • Family and I are safe and well.
  • Currently at shelter.
  • Currently at home.
  • Currently at friend/family member/neighbor’s house.
  • Currently at a hotel.
  • Will make phone calls when able.
  • Will email when able.
  • Will mail letter/postcard when able.

Working link to the search pageTo get even that much, they’ll need to know one of her pre-disaster contact numbers or her address.

So the trick here is how to use an open platform like Twitter to handle incoming information, both in volume and in terms of data security and personal privacy. Here are two answers.

  1. Let’s say my friend Kami gets flooded out in San Antonio, and is rushing to a shelter where there is no power. She can call or send a text message to her friend Josh in Orlando, and ask him to register her for Safe and Well. This is a preferred method.
  2. Let’s say she doesn’t know anyone on the outside she can trust with her information. She can send a direct message to safeandwell on Twitter. Since those notifications would only come to Red Cross employees (like myself, or others I share the password with) we can start an entry from there. The message (sent to 40404) would be

    D safeandwell Firstname Lastname contact# address ‘I am safe and well’

Now, it’s not quite a perfect system, but it is better than nothing. Maybe someone smarter than I am can come up with a way to put the instructions on the back of a business card. Maybe a bunch of you can add your suggestions or improvements to the system.

Maybe a couple of you well step up and register as official Red Cross volunteers, so I can have someone I trust to whom I can delegate this sort of monitoring, troubleshooting, and data entry.

Comments are open, and as always they are free. Discuss.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, American Red Cross, disaster, communications, disaster communications, Safe and Well, Twitter, Hurricane Katrina[/tags]

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  1. At least I have a friend in this scenario. I am assuming that someone would sent a direct message to REDCROSS to keep everything secure?

    I like the idea overall, but I think the issue is going to be in the marketing. How do we get the information to the people, especially in a disaster? There could be instruction sheets in shelters, but for people stuck in attics, that is a different story. It would be cool if Twtter did like Facebook and worked with the Red Cross to get a application together to better facilitate this. Great PR for Twitter too.

    Also, you could add it to the Red Cross webpage with the Safe and Well info.

    Okay, I am now babbling, so I will go away to listen to the thunder and lightning from the arriving storm here in San Antonio. And by the way, this is Kami Husye in San Antonio, I am safe and well, along with Chloe, who is taking a nap beside me here in her bouncy seat.

  2. Ideally, your friend would go directly to the website and enter your information for you. This is becoming part of the standard messaging for every family disaster plan: establish an outside contact.

    Since Josh is in Florida, you could call or text him and he’s entering securely, right on the site.

    This would be an option for those without a friend (or at least one with a known working computer.) There are some barriers to communicating it, but that’s been the Safe and Well challenge since the beginning. (That goes for Disaster Readiness in general.)

    This is not a way to supplant Safe and Well, but rather to supplement it. Anything that gets one more platform plugged into the same database just multiplies the chances of making a crucial connection.

    I’m glad Chloe is okay. She looks different than I remember.

  3. Hi Ike,

    the “safe and well”-site sounds interesting. As I am responsible for “new media” at Austrian Red Cross, I am interested in your whole web2.0-strategy. Maybe there is a paper, you can send me?

    I tried to write a short summary on our strategy in my redcross-webmaster-blog as well as an analysis on the different stakeholders for redcross-communication in desaster situations. (both in German language)

    We started a new blog about our ERU-Pakistan-mission two days ago at Unfortunately it is in German language, like my other redcross-related blogs and

    Best regards,

    Gerald Czech
    Vienna, Austria

  4. Ike, this is a really great idea. I’m helping to brainstorm some uses for Twitter at my company, and keeping in touch during emergencies was one idea that I’m very keen on. I had no idea that cell phone users could sign up on the fly through SMS – that’s insanely useful.

  5. Great ideas! Safe and Well sounds like a good solution to a serious problem. I do wonder how you can get the general public to adopt tools like this though.

  6. Kevin – there are two answers to that part of the puzzle.

    The first is that we’re using the Twitter platform as a test, to see how readily people will accept SMS as a form of disaster messaging. I have a hunch that many will, particularly the younger the demographic.

    If we can make a case that this is an effective tool, then we explore ways to employ the same functionality in an enterprise-level fashion, with our own equipment.

    Now – as to how to get people to use it “now.” Twitter was the platform of choice because it requires no web component whatsoever to sign up. If my mother had only a cell phone, I could talk her through the subscription process very plainly, or even through a written step-by-step tipsheet. None of the other services allowed for seamless sign-up over SMS – and Jaiku (for now) is getting its overseas SMS messages blocked by many major US cell-service providers. The Google purchase of Jaiku will make things interesting, as I suspect Big-G will move the servers stateside and open the whole API up for business.

  7. I guess I’m a little skeptical because I work in a developing country where adoption of technology is uneven to say the least. However mobile phones are making incredible inroads here and the young do seem to be the early adoptors.

    I think that Red Cross t-shirts might help get the word out. Just put the instructions for following the Safe and Well feed on the back of the shirt. During emergencies everyone’s eyes are drawn to those shirts.

  8. This is exactly what I’m hoping to create on a global/regional level for human rights workers and journalists (possibly through Human Rights Watch). When I was arrested in Egypt for doing journalism, a Twitter message to friends was how they got started working on my case and got me out. Anyone interested in this or who’s willing to share their expertise, shoot me an email at jameskbuck at gmail dot com. Thanks!
    James Buck


  1. […] Ike Pigott’s blog: Safe and Well is made up of two parts: a place for evacuees to register themselves, and a search […]

  2. […] many sources: Stephenson Strategies, Wired, KPBS and Occam Razr. Share […]

  3. […] Ike Pigott, who specializes in crisis communication, discusses how the American Red Cross is using Twitter as part of their Safe and Well Program. […]

  4. […] search!) I also helped develop strategies the American Red Cross will soon employ, using Twitter to connect with evacuees during the next big […]

  5. […] Ike Pigott, who specializes in crisis communication, discusses how the American Red Cross is using Twitter as part of their Safe and Well Program. […]