How Should Social Networks Innovate To Become More Useful During Natural Disasters?

It goes without saying that social media is an invaluable tool during natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. But what tools and functions would make social networks even more useful during emergency situations?

(Keep these ideas coming in the comment section; I'll be adding your ideas to this post all weekend long!)

It's not news that social media has become an invaluable resource during natural disasters. As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, I and many of my fellow New Yorkers were swept away by a torrent of tweets bearing news and emergency information about the storm and the city.

As useful as social media has been this week, the disaster also exposed some of the medium's known weaknesses. For one thing, not all of the information distributed on Twitter Monday night was true. This week I asked social media professionals and Twitter users what innovations are needed in order for social media to become more useful—and more reliable—during public crises. Here are some of the ideas they suggested:


"If geolocation were more reliable on social networks, it would be possible to find posts from folks in specific areas, rather than just random people around the world talking/speculating/reposting items they think are from specific areas," wrote Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University.

I did come across some neat tools that made use of geotagged tweets, and Twitter Advanced Search does allow users to search by location, but these functions aren't directly helpful to people interacting with just Twitter's streaming interface on the web or through apps. Plus, not all tweets are geotagged.


In the comments section below, Alex Wittenberg offered an interesting idea for making mobile donations via tweets. "Twitter should allow people to tie their PayPal accounts to their twitter handles, then verified organizations (such as Red Cross, United Way) could post tweets saying "RT to automatically donate $5 to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts," wrote Wittenberg.


This was one of the most frequent suggestions I received this week. I would note that Twitter did list a number of hashtags on its blog, though that doesn't seem to have prevented confusion:

"A smart way to establish Twitter hashtags would be really useful so that people know what to post with and what to look for," wrote Sreenivasan. "Yes, #HurricaneSandy or #Sandy were obvious, but it's rare to have two natural choices—even those can be too many. With almost every other emergency situation, it's hard to know which hashtags to use."


Mandy Jenkins, Interactives Editor at Digital First Media, wrote that she wishes social networks would "stop sending me their regular non-emergency alerts when the area where I live is under a state of emergency."


Jenkins also wishes she had "an option on one of the major social media services to send my message along as an alert via text or phone call to a pre-selected group of people...I know there are mass messaging services out there—but this would sort of piggyback on the alert services we already use."


Twitter let several agencies (including the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, the Red Cross, and the New York Mayor's Office) use promoted tweets for free during the storm. Twitter user Ian Byrne thinks networks like Facebook should follow Twitter's lead and do more to promote emergency information posts from government and relief agencies.

Users can already set Twitter up to send tweets from specific accounts, mentions and other interactions to their phones via SMS—but what if users could choose to have promoted posts by government and emergency agencies texted directly to their phones during natural disasters? This could be a useful option if Internet connections gets slow.


The issue of dealing with false information came up several times as I solicited ideas this week.

Twitter user Alexandre Sartini suggests that tweets that contain confirmed information could be stamped with a confirmed icon—though he's not sure exactly who would bestow that verification stamp on a tweet, or how it would be done. Fair enough—it's a good suggestion, if challenging.


(Keep these ideas coming in the comment section; I'll be adding your ideas to this post all weekend long!)

[Image: Flickr user Maroon Surreal]

Add New Comment


  • Dawn Dawson

    You can set hashtags but local incident/disaster determines use as ppl/community will create their own or it will evolve. Evident since 08' - 09', Boulder Fire 2010 and hundreds of instances since. Some have become a standard like #Wx for weather or by State #MOwx for weather reporting (NWS) or during major #Wildfire (State level #TXFire), repeat Disasters in an area like during Tornadoes, and other Global Incidents. Look at The Red Cross with Disaster Volunteers and Twitter Verified accounts. Verified seems ridiculous two reasons, one being you can train to volunteer virtually, are a "Verified Account" and only do it for 4 hours or more one or two times a year and your what I call a forever Verified Volunteer and two just have to go though minimal training having an account no real experience Tweeting during Disasters as mostly scripted anyway. "Trusted sources" like News are also seen to be the most in error and Official sometimes not much better or they don't even have a Digital presence. I'm a firm believer that if you have no real experience actually "Tweeting Disasters" being having done it for some time with proven track record, should not be giving advice when it affects public safety and someone's life could be hanging in the balance and continued dialogue is good. Unfortunately there is no standard although can see it moving in that direction by evolving qualification standards for positions involving Social Media and 10 years in Communications doesn't fit that requirement. @northlandfox  

  • pebo72

    what about the basic social media: face to face interactions - this mitigates perceived "suffering" & builds trusting relationships, like the olden days. 
    Lesson learned: no connectivity, including phone/text. Plan for the worse case: use the old transistor radio &/or find a smartphone w/a radio; create a network of family/friends & community resources - they're our life line not tweets, the local, state or federal government

  • Laci Lewis

    combining two of them: Using promoted posts to announce official hashtags --- who stops to think, "oh, I better fight with slow internet connection and low battery to go to twitter's blog to figure out which hashtags to use"

  • Hassan

    hello,i think to expand the role of new technologies such as cell phones,social networks such huge disasters needs :
    1-public and all spreaded use of them by all people around the world.
    2-gettting the latest news online of course is another abstacle,which needs better devices,means more money,that is not used and afford by all people,and of course improvement of its culture for such usage.
    3-owner of these big companies must allocate some of their annual revenue to advertising and educating of these tools  and applications in such emergency situations without any charges to their customers,and of course governments must take part in this issues and accept somepart of its cost.
    4-improvement of thechnologies ,like  better batteries work at least 4 or more days nonstop  can also help reducing of such defects and fails.

  • David Germain

    When any even like this happens, people could invest in a MESH network, or at very least disable security on the AP's so anyone near buy can get access to the data feeds.
    The people running the social network should say what #tag to use they could then tell the government that #ABC should be used so during there emergency broadcasts people can see it.
    Also local communities could get together and make sure cell site are kept running using generators - obviously working with telco's.
    I think situations like call for greater community spirit rather then this ordering company a to do such and such. At a government level a list needs to be made with the things people need and then each company in social media then says i will do that ect ect - bit like a wedding list but for disasters.

  • Penman36

    Just imagine if real disasters were to happen now - a supervolcano, a Tsunami of say three times or 100 times that of the Japanese one or something horrendous of mythological proportions where would we be without our creature comforts, years and decades or more of being back in the dark ages, city populations forced out and back into the country, starvation on a bigger scale than the plagues in Ireland and around the world, within seconds telecommunications, internet and flight gone, main monetary foundations decimated and made irrelevant overnight and global armed forces robbed of the high technology ... makes yo think doesn't it????!!!!

  • Hitendra R. Patil

    No electricity for longer periods means no ability to communicate. If social networks have ip addresses and hence geolocations of the "place of origin of account", a satellite monitoring system can identify areas without electricity, then send that data to social networks, then social networks can identify accounts from their places of origin and tag those accounts with "no electricity at this user's place" so that those connected with that user will "see an update" !!! Once the power comes back, next update "this user should have electricity now" can help reducing frantic phone calls by friends and relatives. I think Government support for producing solar chargers can help people staying connected in such crisis. 

  • SAK

    I like ANDREW HOUGHTON services So i can say in this way Social Media can be useful in such circumstances e.g. natural disasters like sandy hurricane 

  • Navin

    Use Watsapp for location using platform of google latitude. Its a great way to understand the locations. Once a location is tracked it can aid both people using technology associated social media and also the more deprived ones.

  • Krishnan

    The helplessness of a nation in a power outage in their Financial capital is horrifying.  The nightmare of Sandy and the sufferrings even after a week of people shows that US is unprepared for such calamities.

  • Nkrishcma

    I forgot to add that I was at Jersey City and I couldnt charge my mobile because of power outage, my comment is even social media is of no help during such calamities

  • Alex Wittenberg

    Twitter should allow people to tie their PayPal accounts to their twitter handles, then verified organizations (such as Red Cross, United Way) could post tweets saying "RT to automatically donate $5 to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts." That would almost instantaneously raise a ridiculous amount of money to worthy causes. The most retweeted Tweet of all-time got 100,000 retweets; 100,000 * $5 = a great deal of Hurricane relief.

    The guidelines would need to be stringent to receive verification as a charitable organization to avoid fraud, but if people could donate with one click as well as show everyone the good deed they are doing. Furthermore, when Twitter users see their friends donating they will be much more likely to donate themselves.

  • ianobyrno

    Great idea! This is kind of the next step for being able to monetize twitter for companies. Wonder if we'll see it or something similar happen soon.

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  • Stephen Hauskins

    Well electricity helps.  Millions were without power and I assume their smart phones were disabled as well.

    In the end it is the people who are not connected that suffer the most.

  • David Germain

    i was thinking the same thing. its really great to have twitter ect to #tag the events. but if social networks want to help they should help getting the essential services back up. eg water, power.
    Also the twitters of this world could tweet what hash tags to use, send a area based message to all twitter users with use this #tag for the event.