As Sandy Became #Sandy, Emergency Services Got Social

As New Yorkers took to Twitter to voice concerns, request aid, and offer real-time help, organizations were–more than ever before–there and ready to respond on their native platforms. Here’s how the Red Cross, the City of New York, and Occupy Wall Street ratcheted up their Hurricane Sandy relief via the social web.

As Sandy Became #Sandy, Emergency Services Got Social

Let’s get this out of the way: Sandy isn’t the first social disaster.


“Disasters have been social forever,” Kate Starbird, a crisis informatics researcher at the University of Washington, writes in an email. She ticks off recent catastrophes–the 2004 tsunami, the Virginia Tech shootings, the fires in Colorado this summer. All were social, she says, but Sandy was an “order of magnitude” more so in terms of volume, due to the massive size–and connectivity–of the populations it affected.

The proof is in the tweets: More than 20 million about the storm were sent between October 27 and Nov 1. And as more people have piled onto social platforms to trade information, public good orgs from government to the grassroots have gotten more effective about responding to them there, as the response to Sandy proved.

The Red Cross’s Virtual “Hugs”

Wendy Harman is listening at scale. Using the high-end social media monitor Radian6, the American Red Cross’s director of social strategy can detect who needs help where. Together with 23 staffers and volunteers, her team’s collected more than 2.5 million conversations about Sandy, 4,500 of which have been tagged and sent out either to volunteers, either online or on the ground. This is how it works: If someone posts that they are trying to find shelter, reunite with their family, or a similar need, the post is routed automatically to on-the-ground disaster relief. While Harman says that the response may not be immediate–you can’t tweet “please bring me a sandwich, Red Cross” and have a vehicle come to you–the posts allow the engagement team to alert personnel to real needs.

But needs aren’t always physical; often they’re emotional. Someone might tweet that they feel anxious about the cleanup required or the damage their community may endure. This can be done online, thanks to cooperation between the Red Cross’s disaster mental health and social engagement teams.

It’s not the same as being there in person, Harman says, but it does align with the humanitarian organization’s emphasis on hope amid struggle. They give an assuring, informative “digital hug”: If someone tweets that they’re scared of a tornado impact, the social engagement team can reach out and say “here are the three best things that you can do in this moment and keep in touch, we hope you stay safe, hugs from the Red Cross.” The Red Cross has given about 1,500 digital hugs–one of them by Honorary Chair Barack Obama.


Much of the work is done by digital volunteers, Harman says, and they’re looking to onboard more. Socially savvy humanitarians can apply to be one here.

Harman says the Red Cross can continue to improve the ways they work online. Some of it has to do with data: At the start of Sandy, the locations of shelters were available online but the locations of the emergency response vehicles were not. Now the social team checks in with drivers every hour, and their locations are posted to the Red Cross’s disaster newsroom and tweeted out from local feeds.

According to the Red Cross’s research, social and mobile are tied for the fourth-most popular ways of accessing emergency information after TV, radio, and online. To meet the changing demographics, they’re moving into mobile as well–preload their hurricane app for the next time a storm comes.

“Everything we’re doing is supplemental to what the Red Cross has always done; there’s still a lot of boots on the ground and that’s still our focus,” Harman says. “[Social engagement] is about meeting people where they’re increasingly spending their time.”


NYC Digital And Its Silicon Alley Allies

To NYC chief digital officer Rachel Haot, crisis management is about making sure the information people need is consistent, accurate, and easy to access. To do that, NYC digital draws on resourcing inside and outside of City Hall.

The city runs a range of Twitter accounts, and not all come from Haot’s NYC Digital office. “We don’t think that there should be a siloed office that is in charge of digital,” she said, “we think it should be strategically integrated in every department where it makes sense.” All together, the city has more than 200 staff doing social in English and Spanish. They sent out more than 2,000 tweets between Oct. 26 and Nov 7.

Unlike with Irene, the city met Sandy with a coordinated social effort. In language familiar to business marketers, Haot described how the city now uses Hootsuite to integrate all its social media presence (they were on five different formats with Irene). This allows the digital team to track responses, monitor inquiries, and correct misleading messages.

NYC Digital also looked to its Silicon Alley allies for assistance. Companies like Google, Twitter, and Tumblr were an aid to the city, providing solutions beyond what the Mayor’s Office could do alone. “We’re not reinventing the wheel but taking advantage of the innovations they’re developing,” Haot said. Twitter gave promoted tweets to the City of New York, a move that she says allowed for hundreds of thousands more people to see their updates.

Some of the public-private coordination came by way of data sharing, which Haot says allowed the necessary information to scale. Before the storm hit, the city shared evacuation zones and shelter locations, which Google integrated into its Crisis Map and WNYC used to make the evacuation zones searchable. After the storm, these utilities continue to provide value–the Crisis Map now indexes which gas stations are stocked and which are empty.


Occupy Sandy Volunteers Via Twitter

Yoni Miller’s on the phone from St. Jacobi Church is Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He’s the social media coordinator for Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that sprung up in the wake of the hurricane. The grassroots relief organization has gathered a lot of positive press in the past week for its efforts: New York detailed their medics’ visits to Coney Island, Slate asked if it’s outperforming the Red Cross, and The Daily News picked up on how they repurposed Amazon’s wedding registry for hurricane victims.

To this leftist occupier, the move from Zucotti Park to Sunset Park is a natural fit. “This is a movement built around the crisis of Wall Street,” Miller says, “so Hurricane Sandy was right up our alley of organizing mutually, of working with communities, and [of] spreading the information in a grassroots, viral, spontaneous manner.”

Key for Occupy Sandy has been partnering with other relief organizations, like climate change activists, community software organization, and anti-poverty nonprofit Red Hook Initiative. Beyond Sunset Park, Occupy Sandy now has a center at 520 Clinton in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Miller runs @OccupySandy, where he’s answering questions from the immediate (“I have a car right now, what can I do?”) to the general (“How can I volunteer next week?”). Medics, electricians, and translators have offered their in-demand skills via Twitter, Miller says, and they’re connected to where they need to go in real time, from the Lower East Side to Red Hook to Breezy Point.

Miller says that Twitter, like Occupy Wall Street, is democratizing. “Here everyone is the media. Everyone is the volunteer.”


Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Christopher Schoenbohm]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.