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:

BETTER GEOLOCATION SERVICES

"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.

MORE EFFICIENT WAYS TO DONATE VIA SOCIAL MEDIA

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.

A BETTER WAY TO ESTABLISH OFFICIAL HASHTAGS

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."

SUSPEND NORMAL PROGRAMMING

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."

BETTER WAYS TO KEEP FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND COLLEAGUES IN THE LOOP

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."

PROMOTED POSTS

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.

TWEET VERIFICATION

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.

AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE:

(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]

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