Thursday, 19 December 2013

Twitter Alerts come to the UK as an official emergency notification system - Dr Panos Panagiotopoulos, Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary University

Twitter’s recent launch of Twitter Alerts to users in the UK and Ireland was covered widely in the mainstream media (see here and here). The system allows users to receive information from trustworthy organisations “during emergencies, natural disasters or moments when other communications services aren’t accessible” (this is how it works). Twitter Alerts also come with a warning that that they do not replace other channels of distributing critical emergency information. In the UK, organisations providing alerts through Twitter includes police forces, ambulance services, the Environment Agency, the Mayor of London and the British Red Cross (the full list is here).

Twitter began in 2006 as an extension of mobile SMS services on the web. It was soon enriched with such conversational features as hashtags, replies and retweets. Twitter’s estimated up to 15 million users in the UK generate much of their activity using mobile devices. During emergencies, Twitter’s rapid flow of information from many sources has proven valuable in events such as the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and Super Storm Sandy in late 2012 when over 20 million tweets in six days were generated. In the UK, Twitter users had big impacts during unexpected events such as the riots of August 2011 and many weather-related emergencies including the recent floods.

There is much more to this than simply spreading official information more quickly than used to be possible.

Emergency communications are no longer just about a matter of one-way announcement as social media users can now interact directly with governments and reproduce emergency information within their own networks. We can’t easily measure just how far information travels or even how much the public engages with it. But we do know that its reach can be impressive. For example, a single tweet warning of a tsunami is thought to have reached more than four million Twitter users in Indonesia.

Emergency information in social media comes from many different sources and channels. Indeed, using social media means that now government agencies must often relay information about issues beyond their own remit. It’s now regarded as good practice for agencies to make the public aware of how updates will be posted and which other information sources are relevant such as transport services or utility companies (Ines Mergel’s thoughts on this are worth reading). Public authorities using social media must monitor, filter and sometimes relay information posted by others to disprove rumours, to highlight issues, and to organise or support response and recovery initiatives. During the 2011 riots, for example, Twitter users took the initiative to organise clean-up activities but in Manchester and many London Boroughs, public authorities quickly got involved in social media to spread the word and encourage people to take part.  

Public authorities must think carefully about just exactly they should use social media during emergencies. On the one hand they must raise awareness and alert people to risks. On other hand, and especially after major crimes or during civil unrest, they must calm public fears, provide certainty and prevent potentially threatening situations from escalating. For example, during the 2011 riots, several councils tweeted about the progress of arrests and prosecutions and also issued warnings to offenders that they might lose benefits. These tweets may have had an impact on stopping the existing riots or at least deterring some people from taking part.

It’s clear that for the state, there is much more to using social media now than issuing warnings. Public authorities need to enter social media during emergencies clearly understanding that they are engaged in a conversation among thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, which they can’t necessarily dominate. But on the other hand they must try to use social media to intervene, to influence, sometimes to mobilise people and sometimes to do the very opposite. Social media such as Twitter are major opportunities for public authorities, not least citizens increasingly to organise themselves through their platforms. But the speed and complexity of information flows also mean that public authorities using such channels might have a lot to learn.

Panos Panagiotopoulos is a Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary University of London with interests in information technology and social media research. He tweets from @DrPanPan.

No comments:

Post a Comment