I distinctly remember queuing up at a payphone in NYC where I was living on September 11, 2001 to call my parents and tell them I was alright. People in line with me were uncharacteristically patient that day, because we all knew that we were simply trying to make that one phone call to let that one person know that we were okay.
Four years later I sent my first text messages from a hotel room in Houston. I had moved to New Orleans in the intervening years and had barely bothered to get a cell phone, much less learn how to text – until I evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, and the only reliable way to connect with friends and coworkers amongst the power outages and cell tower failures was to text. This was 2005. It would be another 2 years before the iPhone came out, Twitter hadn’t been invented, and “TheFacebook” was still a closed social network for college students. So I went through my phone book one by one, sending out virtual messages in a bottle – “Where are you?” “Are you okay?” “I just saw your house on CNN. No flooding. Yeah! ”
This past week I was checking in on friends and family in New Orleans as Hurricane Isaac entered into the Gulf, and had time to reflect on how far we have come in the way we broadcast and consume information; how differently a disaster plays out today for those in the ugly middle of it, and for those on the sidelines trying to make sense of it.
First-person reporting versus traditional media
There are two parts of the information game in a disaster: what’s going on in general, and what’s going on in your own very real, very immediate world – which stores have ice, which houses were damaged, what schools will be open, are the neighbors okay? Our ability to find and rationalize both of these types of data today is radically different than what I experienced in New York in 2001 or in New Orleans in 2005.
My sister still lives in New Orleans and made the decision to evacuate on Sunday, in part because of her participation in an online weather junkie forum, and only after checking in with her peers on Facebook – many of whom heeded the official recommendation to shelter in place. The first time I heard about Hurricane Isaac was not through the traditional news outlets, but rather when she texted me to tell me she was thinking about leaving. I was skeptical so I immediately checked Facebook to see what others were saying.
As the storm locked sights on the city, people started analyzing the national media more carefully. With the “news” right outside their door and the internet at hand even in a power outage, there was a second path to validate what was being broadcast. Shortly before the storm hit, a friend remarked:
[National weather correspondent] Jim Cantore seems to be darkening the background to make it seem more dangerous. I’m like 5 blocks from him and it’s much brighter.
And in the middle of the hurricane another friend posted:
… quick rant for those who care about new Orleans: if you want to keep up with what’s really going on, avoid all cable news including… weather porn and check out online nola.com or livestream wwl radio or follow @nolaready on twitter. nothing on your tv is accurate.
As power outages took hold and the hurricane made land people began navigating the virtual world exclusively on laptops and mobile devices. In this state the speed and signal-to-noise ratio of information became increasingly important to make decisions. Another friend commented on this information power shift about 36 hours into the blackout in his neighborhood:
My normal attention stack: Mail, Facebook, Twitter. During a disaster: Twitter, Mail, Facebook.
Using social to avoid disasters and spread awareness
Natural disasters are far from only dangerous events social helps inform. Throughout the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution, innovators have found ways to use networks like Twitter to help inform the world of, and help innocents avoid, the widespread violence. One software developer created a mashup of Google Maps and Twitter to plot tweets from and about the region – helping civilians keep away from the most dangerous areas, and getting word out about the most violent atrocities.
Hurricane Isaac was a mercifully mild event, but it was a good test run of emergency information systems. Even as a bystander to this event, I was less scared, less confused, and more confident that I could help my friends and family in the fray. I felt more in control of the information that I was receiving. I knew what to ignore. I knew who and how to ask for more – and it wasn’t my television.
During Hurricane Katrina, we had no way of broadcasting information to our network; we were not yet the virtual CEOs of our own mini-media companies. Now we not only own and broadcast our own signal, but we can validate and circumvent the traditional media outlets entirely. And in the case of disasters, that power can be more valuable than ever.