Have a crisis? There’s an app for that.

Social media tools are elevating the speed and precision of how emergency and crisis responders do their jobs.

During the Gulf Coast oil spill last year, the Coast Guard launched an app to track the real-time spreading of the oil. In its relief efforts in Haiti, the Red Cross used Twitter to identify where help was needed and to raise funds. And the Los Angeles Fire Department is now using FourSquare to find out who has checked in near an incident and to reach out to them for details of the scene.

A “really interesting dynamic” is growing between the unstructured data that people create from their mobile devices and how first responders use that data, said Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media.

Social media has created an expectation that someone is listening to a “digital cry for help,” Howard said. The result can be both instantaneous and powerful, he added.

“When someone needs help, their voice can be amplified instantly all the way around the world, and sometimes that quickly gets to a person who is in a position to help,” he said.

Geospatial technology gives responders the ability to identify patterns, concentrations and frequencies of events like fires and floods. And all that data can be uploaded on a responder’s mobile device, Howard said.

“If you don’t have assets on the ground there if you’re a responder, you can get some sense of what’s happening before you get there,” Howard said.

The availability of massive amounts of data – and the ability to make sense of it – can go beyond responding to people who need help to actually optimizing people’s lives, Howard said.

Read Howard’s article in O’Reilly Radar.


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