Mastodon: yet another SM platform for #SMEM and #VOST to watch during incidents and disasters?


There’s a new, decentralized social media platform called Mastodon that appears to be growing very fast.  I know, I know, we’ve seen this before. Ello was supposed to challenge Twitter, Diaspora was supposed to challenge Facebook, so what’s different this time?

Maybe nothing. You may want to wait a while before committing to yet another social media platform. But what if your preferred Mastodon username is gone by the time you decide to get on at a later date? Or what if an incident or disaster occurs and people start using Mastodon to share relevant info? Why not go ahead and get account set up just in case, or as an exercise, to see how fast you can set up and start using a new platform? I would argue that the more places we’re able to look for relevant info, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to help people when they need it.

Here are some statistics on Mastodon usage that may help convince you that it’s worth your time to look into Mastodon.

A little background:

Mastodon was created near the end of 2016 by a gentleman in Germany named Eugen Rochko. You can read about his concept and the ongoing process of building Mastodon on his blog. He says that Mastodon will remain ad-free, and efforts are underway by most Mastodon instances (Since Mastodon is decentralized, it does not exist on one main server, but instead there are “Mastodon instances” set up on multiple servers.) to create spaces for civil discourse by setting rules that encourage this. In my view, these factors make it seem likely to be a very successful platform, and the buzz and growth during April 2017 have encouraged me and a few others in our #SMEM – #VOST community to sign up and try it out.

I’ve built some instructions for setting up your account (see below) and listed a lot of helpful resources, so look there for more info. I’ve only just joined myself this week, so let’s learn about it together! If you want to mock me for this, please do so on twitter at @sct_r. If you’re interested or enthusiastic about it, let’s talk about it on Mastodon. I’m there at:


Instructions for setting up a Mastodon account:

1- Select a Mastodon instance from this list:

2- Go to the start page for the Mastodon instance that you select.

3- Enter a username, email and password, then click  the “get started” button.


4- Go to your email and click on the “Confirm my account” link to verify your new account. This link takes you back to your Mastodon instance to log in and verify your new account.


5- Once you’ve signed in to Mastodon, you’ll see a tweetdeck-style page with columns. On the left column, click on “Edit profile” to fill out your display name, bio, and upload your avatar and header picture.


6- The search window is in the left column, above your profile. So far it appears that search results produce results from words/names listed in account bios, and hashtags.

6a- Enter some keywords or hashtags for things that you’re interested in to find other accounts to follow. ( A couple of us just started posting with the #SMEM and #VOST hashtags there, so maybe start there.)

7- If you know a person’s account name, you can search it to try and find them. Here’s how to do that. We’ll use my account as an example.

7a- If an account is on the same instance as yours, you can enter the account name only like this: @sct_r

7b- If an account is on a different Mastodon instance than yours, you can still search it using the account name to try to find it on other instances.

7c- Full account names include both your username as well as the specific Mastodon instance that you have registered on. So for instance my full account name on the instance is:  If you know the full account name for the person that you’re looking for, enter that in the search window.

8- Now post your first toot! ( yeah, I know, that sounds weird.) Mastodon suggests that your first posts should include some hashtags describing your interests so that other users interested in those subjects can find and follow you. I highly recommend that your toot include the #SMEM and/or #VOST hashtag so that all of us interested in #SMEM and #VOST can find each other!

NOTE: I chose to use my twitter account name on Mastodon. This is not required, I simply did this to make it easier for my twitter friends to find me.

NOTE 2: Registering your preferred account name on one instance does not automatically register that account name on all instances, so other people can register your account name and use it on other instances. (You can register on multiple instances if you like, but I would suggest choosing one for now and making it your main account for the time being until we see how Mastodon grows and evolves. I’ll probably go register my preferred login on a few main instances, but there are already over 1,200 instances listed on the list above.)

NOTE 3: Many Mastodon users refer to twitter as “the birdsite”.

MORE NOTES: Some things I’ve learned by spending some time on several Mastodon instances:

-It appears that, much like the early days of twitter, posts (toots) will not be visible for more than a couple of weeks. So for now, if you’re saving info on a post for some reason, I would save a link to the post, but I’d also save the full text of the post, and if appropriate, depending on team/agency policy, a screenshot of the post if it is thought to be important.

-Search is currently very limited. A word or name entered in the search bar currently seems to search a database of accounts, and also creates a hashtag search that searches all affiliated posts from the federated timeline.

-You can run a hashtag search without logging in to Mastodon like this:

(just enter the hashtag after “/tags/”)

Manuals/Guides/Instructions for using Mastodon

 “A Guide to the Mastodon Social Network” by @Crackmacs (very helpful!) A beginner’s guide to microblogging on Mastodon


Mastodon Resources, Posts and Videos and Apps

Mastodon Resources:

“Welcome to Mastodon What’s different and why it’s better”: a blog post by Eugen Rochko, Creator of Mastadon (3/31/17)

Mastodon.Social “About” page

Mastodon Social Wikipedia article

A list of all Mastodon Instances

Mastodon discussions on Reddit

Medium account for Eugen Rochko, Creator of Mastodon (many blog posts on building Mastodon)

Welcome to the Mastodon Community Wiki, aka #MastoWiki.

Mastodon User guide on


Tools/services/helpful websites:

Here’s a site for viewing the local (or federated) stream of any Mastodon instance. (Thanks to building for this.)

This website is a tool for finding your Twitter friends in the federated Mastodon network. As long as your friends have signed on here with both accounts, you can find them.

Mastadon post scheduler

Worldmap of Mastodon Users and other Mastodon Stats

Articles and blog posts about Mastodon:

Chronicle of Higher Education website: “Are You on Mastodon Yet? Social Network of Our Own” (11/28/16)

Mastodon User Guide by a new user (3/3/17)

Mashable: “Bye Twitter, all of the cool kids are moving to Mastodon” (4/4/17)

Motherboard: “Mastodon Is Like Twitter Without Nazis, So Why Are We Not Using It?” (4/4/17)

Mashable: “Want to be verified on Mastodon? Do it yourself, tooters” (4/6/17) “People Are Leaving Twitter To Join This New Social Media Site” (4/6/17) 

Mashable: “The coder who built Mastodon is 24, fiercely independent, and doesn’t care about money” (4/6/2017) “A beginner’s guide to microblogging on Mastodon” (4/6/17)

The Verge: “A beginner’s guide to Mastodon, the hot new open-source Twitter clone” (4/7/17)

Hackernoon: “What I Wish I Knew Before Joining Mastodon” (4/9/17)

MalwareBytesLabs: “Mastodon: different social network, additional risks” (4/10/17)

Wired: “Like Twitter But Hate Trolls? Try Mastodon” (4/13/17)

Mashable: “In the rapidly expanding Mastodon fediverse, there’s an instance for everyone” (4/15/17)

Newbie’s FAQ on Mastodon social network (4/19/17) “Mastodon: Here to stay or DOA?” (4/20/17)

“Toot Toot Tweet Tweet” (4/24/17) A well written and thoughtful post considering Mastodon vs Twitter from a new Mastodon user’s perspective.

PR Daily:  “Is Mastodon doomed to extinction?” (4/28/17)

And of course there’s Reddit r/Mastodon_Social or r/MastodonSocial


Videos/Podcasts about Mastodon:

Note: (There are a lot of videos about Mastodon on YouTube – you can do a search there, but here are a few that I’ve screened that should be helpful):

Open SourceCraft YouTube video: “What is the Mastodon Social Network?” (5/3/17)

YouTube – “Why’s Everyone Talking About Mastodon?” – Hak5 2205 (4/12/17)

YouTube – PmD Interactive: “How to use” (4/16/17)

YouTube – Chris Were’s Tech Channel: “, a new, open source, federated social network that works with GNU Social” (4/19/17)

YouTube – “Mastodon Social First Look” (4/11/17)


Mastadon Apps

Here’s a page listing Mastodon apps.

I’ve tried web-based Mastodon in a web browser (seems to work well on Firefox, Chrome and Safari), and I’m using Amaroq on my iPhone (the only Mastadon app in the Apple store so far.)


Update: a basic twitter geocode search how-to

I just re-wrote and simplified my instructions for creating a fast, simple twitter geocode search, as my previous blog post has links in the instructions that don’t work anymore.

1-  Go to a latitude/longitude finder such as and enter the place or address that you need a lat/long for in the search bar. If you have an address, include it, but you can also use a town name and state, or a town name and country. (NOTE: It is sometimes worth verifying a lat/long search result. For instance, you might want to try running the same search in google maps and compare lat/long results.)

An alternative way to obtain the latitude longitude is to do a google search, then copy the lat/long straight out of the web address. Here’s an example:,+GA/@34.2920145,-83.8976776,12z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x885f5f0d58a7e8b1:0x501c640cc59cd439!8m2!3d34.2978794!4d-83.8240663

Notice that in the above web address, the lat/long is already formatted and ready to copy out. Below, I’ve emphasized the lat/long that you need to copy out in red:,+GA/@34.2920145,-83.8976776,12z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x885f5f0d58a7e8b1:0x501c640cc59cd439!8m2!3d34.2978794!4d-83.8240663


2- Here is the format that you need the lat/long to be in (with no spaces) in order to insert it in to the geocode search:



3- Next, create your geosearch, with no spaces in the text:


The above search is set for 10 Kilometers – you can make the search as small as .01km or as large as 2500km

NOTE: Save this search in a notes document or somewhere so that you can work on it outside of the twitter search box.


4– Now copy and paste the entire geosearch over to the twitter search window and run the search. Don’t forget that the first results listed will be “Top Results” – click “Latest” to see the most recent results.


5- I tend to start with a moderate size search, depending on the estimated population density. Run some test searches to see what kind of results you get, then change the search radius, making it larger and smaller to see the effect on your search.


6– If you are seeing too many irrelevant search results, it’s time to add some additional search terms to your geocode search.

Try adding words that are common to the type of incident that you are searching.

For instance, if there is a severe windstorm or hurricane, first you would try searches using words like “storm”, “trapped”, “damage”, “power out”, then later in the disaster you’d be running searches such as “shelter” “closed” “open”, “missing” “lost”.

Such a search would look like this:

geocode:34.2920145,-83.8976776,10km AND storm OR trapped OR damage

Also remember to occasionally run question mark searches, like this:

geocode:34.2920145,-83.8976776,10km AND ?

Question mark searches will often help you to spot needs and trends. More on question mark searches here.


NOTE: I originally posted a more complicated process, which came from my workflow at the time, describing how I set up my notes and then create edit and save my geosearches all in one note. I still do it this way before sharing or moving my best searches in to a VOST workbook, but the instructions were pretty outdated, and I thought that having a more simple description would be helpful.


NOTE 2: While it is certainly possible to run some location searches via twitter advanced search, I find that the above geocode search method with the lat/long usually brings better results. try both methods and see how it works for you.


NOTE 3: For more on twitter advanced searches, check out this previous blog post.

You may also want to check out twitter on using advanced searches


NOTE 4: twitter has (frustratingly so) made it difficult to share a link directly to the search operators, which can be found on the search page here, but I’m posting a picture of them here for easy access.


VOST Workbook Mods


#SMEM-sters and #VOST-ies are disaster geeks. We love our tools and methods of operating. While we share a love of innovation and trying new things, some of us (I am including myself in this) can be resistant to changing our basic tools and procedures; they’ve served us well for several years on disaster activations of all types and sizes, so why change?

We try to keep the basic tools/techniques standardized so that any VOSTie can walk right in to assist another team, and can almost immediately be helpful. Yet teams often need to customize and try different things to make the VOST concept work for them. For example, Skype has long been our standard place to set up text-based chat “work rooms” where the team has their ongoing discussion and shares links during activations, yet many teams have tried other platforms such as Google Hangouts, and more recently teams are using Slack as the place for immediate text-based team communication.

I prefer evolutionary changes/iterations in our tools as opposed to big shifts. I think it’s great that teams go their own way and try new stuff, then share what works and what doesn’t. We can all learn from these efforts. With that in mind, I’m offering a few suggested evolutionary changes to the workbook below that I hope will be helpful to those of us starting new teams, and perhaps some of our older teams too. I’d love to hear from other teams/members about what changes you’ve made to the standard VOST workbook to make it work for your agency; who knows, maybe someone else has already tried some of these ideas too.

Suggested New Workbook Tabs

Over the past few activations I’ve noticed that some of our new recruits and trainees struggle to understand the VOST workflow, especially in relation to searching and saving search results. Many struggle, even after trainings, explanations and reading through our documentation. There are a lot of moving parts to grasp. Those of us who’ve been working VOSTs for a long time just jump in and get to work, and when new people come in the chat/workroom, we’re always happy to explain and answer questions, but I think that there are a few VOST workbook modifications that will help new folks to learn and get comfortable with the workbook faster.

It is ALWAYS preferable to bring in your trainees ahead of time, work with them in trainings and exercises, and then ease them in to activations. Yet the reality for many new teams is that this is not always possible. We need to improve our “just in time training” capabilities for onboarding new and spontaneous recruits, and I hope that these suggested workbook modifications will address this.

I’ve already started using the two new tabs listed below with Oregon VOST, but the suggested changes to the “Search Results” tab described and depicted below are new, and I hope to test the concept out on upcoming disaster exercises. Please have a look at this example VOST workbook Search Results tab and let me know what you think. The entire current VOST workbook template is available here, thanks to my colleague Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt.



This tab is a built-in VOST workbook explainer and how-to guide for new team members to get started. While other team members are always happy to help with one-on-one guidance and questions, sometimes it can be a little hectic during the activation and it may take time for people to get back to a new person. I think that this will help people to understand what’s going on in the room make them more comfortable with getting started.



This tab is for very detailed instructions for any tool or platform that needs explaining. This tab is not just for new trainees; even us long-time VOSTies don’t always know how to operate in every platform, or we sometimes need a refresher, especially when there have been important changes to major platforms. Instructions saved in this tab will also help new trainees get connected to the team in the chat room and get invited to the shared workbook.

Changes to the way we operate in the “Search Results” tab.


This is probably the most “radical” operational change that I’m suggesting, and here’s why I think that it’s important. Up to now, most teams have simply logged search results in chronological order as they find them.

First of all, saving search results only in the order in which we find them without organizing them gets messy once there start to be a large number of results.

Second, when new people come in to the VOST chat and workbook, it can be disconcerting to try and figure our what’s going on. We’re talking over each other in overlapping conversations in the workroom, and we’re rapidly saving results in to the workbook search results. There is no discernible order or categorization, except in the mind of the Team Lead or the person who they’ve assigned to analyze the results and write the report. This means that new members aren’t seeing how the analysis happens, and it will therefore take longer for them to grasp what we’re doing, and they may in fact never move past monitoring and searching unless they ask someone to help them understand the analysis and reporting.

Even for those with analysis and reporting experience, the lack of organization or categorization in the search results makes it harder to analyze them and identify patterns. The analysis, which explains the current issues, needs and situations we’re identifying from the search results make their way directly in to the VOST Social Listening Reports. So when all search results are saved as we have been doing, in chronological order as we find them, they are not organized and it is difficult to see patterns and levels of importance in the results.

On a recent activation (Oregon VOST on the Umpqua Community College shooting activation), we divided up specific search tasks in to several new tabs, which definitely helped to make the search results easier to scan for analyzing. On events that have a large number of search tasks, this may still be a good way to go, but I think that there may be a better way to do this.

I suggest that we keep all search results in one tab and separate search results in to report periods. I suggest that instead of saving search results in the order in which we find them, that we instead list them first by levels of urgency, then by type. There is, in my view, no discernible value in saving the results in the order in which we find them as long as we are working with a current set of results in a given time period. We will still log the time that we save each result, but the results will be saved in groups according to urgency, then according to topic. Then lastly, I suggest that we call out and highlight the analysis in the search results cells, in the cell directly below the actual results that have led us to the analysis description.

I believe that this change will streamline the analysis and reporting process, and also will make our analysis/reporting process more transparent to the new team members, leading them to learn the analysis/reporting process more rapidly, which helps to create more team members capable of performing analysis and writing the social listening reports.

This method of operation in the search results tab will also help new team members to understand what we’re looking for, and how we decide what needs to be escalated immediately to our EM contact, and will help to teach them how to identify trends or significant issues. I think that this will also improve search results as people grasp more firmly what we’re looking for, and understand the workflow better.

Procedures for making this work

New procedures are needed for this to work, but nothing that is difficult. A team lead can simply add the new Search Results tab to their existing workbook. Then, when operating the workbook, the procedure is:

  • Open the Search Results tab.
  • Add the date in the black line, and the beginning/ending report period times in to the gray line.
  • Start logging and organizing the search results in to their appropriate categories.
  • There is even a “Miscellaneous” category for those results that don’t seem to fit an existing category, or results that fit in more than one category. (Note: There would be no harm in saving the same search result in to two categories; saving it to more than one category just means that there is more than one issue being addressed in that result.)
  • Organize matching issues within the categories.
  • Once you’ve identified an issue for an “analysis bullet” based on significant results or repeats of similar results, add a new row, title it “ANALYSIS:” then describe the issue and why it’s significant. If you have a recommendation regarding what should be done, add it. (Use a color code or text color to highlight the analysis.)
  • At the end of the report period, go in the work room and ask people to hold off adding new search results for a moment while you archive.
  • Copy out all current search results and archive them (I would recommend moving them down and saving them in order in the same tab so that the team can easily go and view them, but mark them clearly as archived so that people don’t start to add new results there.)
  • Paste in new blank search categories and tell everyone they can start saving results for the new report period.

Note: there is more to social media analysis than I have described above, but for the sake of completing THIS post, brevity is best. Analysis and reporting is for another post (note to self).

Here’s a link to a copy of the modified workbook.

Hope this is helpful. @sct_r

Thanks to Lise St. Denis for our great conversation this morning prior to my sharing this. Your feedback and suggestions were very helpful!

I’d also like to credit Canada VOST here. It was their line breaks in their Search Results workbook tab that led me to think about how we could improve the search results tab. They were already breaking search results in to report periods by adding a black separation row that said “Use Updates from here down for (date) Situation Report Update”. I think that other teams may have been doing this as well, but it was while helping with the recent Canada VOST activation for Fort McMurray that I saw the “report period” technique in action, and that’s what got my gears turning on that.

UPDATE 5/22/16:

There’s a great new May 2016 report by the DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group (#VSMWG): “From Concept to Reality: Operationalizing Social Media for Preparedness, Response and Recovery”.  I was inspired by Mary Jo Flynn’s “Social Media JIC Decision Matrix” in this report to edit my new search results tab to align with the matrix, and this also inspired me to add a new “Pre-Approved Responses” tab to the sample workbook. I plan to test this out on the upcoming Cascadia Rising exercise. This of course will not be useable by all teams, but it seems like a logical step for those with in-house teams or trusted/verified teams. Perhaps this function could be housed in the “Key Websites and Resources” tab, especially for smaller activations, since some of these resources will already be collected there anyway.

More VOST Workbook Resources:

Cheryl Bledsoe’s CRESA “VOST Field Operations Guide”

Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt “VOST Workbook Template” is on Mar’s blog

Caz Milligan and I wrote the VOST Basics Slideshare presentation. The update will be out soon! Watch for it!

Happy Fifth Anniversary, VOST Initiative


In honor of the five year VOST anniversary today, here’s a piece that I wrote about the VOST initiative for the June, 2015 IAEM Bulletin. (with a few slight edits because I just couldn’t help it.) Enjoy!


I’m proud to be a “VOSTie,” a practitioner of the concept known as “Virtual Operations Support Teams” (VOST). We’ve grown the VOST Initiative from a group of emergency management professionals and enthusiastic, talented social media volunteers. This movement grew via social media, and has evolved as a method for working together using free, multi-platform, collaborative tools that allow us to be flexible, resilient and supportive of each others’ efforts when extra help is needed. VOST Teams have begun forming up to support many types of emergencies and disasters, as well as public safety related organizations of all types. The concept started in the United States, but it is growing internationally as well, with teams in Canada, New Zealand, France, United Kingdom, Spain, Australia, Panama, and more.
During a disaster or incident, the public, the media, local goverment, law enforcement, public safety agencies and disaster organizations are all posting, commenting, asking questions and sharing information, images and video in real time. The amount of information flowing on social media and the internet during a disaster or incident can quickly become overwhelming. Emergency managers need to know what’s being shared on social media to gain real-time situational awareness, to respond to rumors, misinformation or old information, and to support the good information that’s being shared. A VOST can help to find useful info, sort and organize it, providing decision support, sentiment analysis, monitoring, reporting, as well as messaging, if desired.

A VOST is a group of people that your agency or organization puts together ahead of time to help listen and report to you, the VOST agency liaison. As the agency liaison, you set up a team to support your agency or organization. You decide what the mission is. In a typical activation, the team listens to what’s being said on social media platforms and apps, stakeholder accounts, news article comments, and anywhere they can find the public talking about what’s happening in relation to our assigned mission, and reports to the agency it’s supporting. Once you’ve built a team of trusted agents, they can do much more than listening and reporting. A well-trained VOST can also answer repetitive questions that are asked on social media, direct people to resources, correct known bad information, monitor your agency social media accounts, respond to comments or questions, and report to you when a question or comment needs to be addressed by the agency.

Emergency managers should build a VOST Team ahead of their need for it. You need to recruit volunteers, train your team, determine the skill level and strengths of your team members, and build relationships with other VOST teams for surge support on large activations. Many experienced VOSTies are happy to join new teams to help with your VOST training and activations and to share VOST methods, skills and knowledge in order to help build the overall VOST movement. Creating these ties to other teams for mutual aid is one of the most important aspects of the VOST concept.

Forming a new VOST organization is very similar to forming any organization; you need to find people who are interested and enthusiastic. One of the biggest differences between forming a VOST virtual team and another organization is that you want to have a combination of both local and non-local team members. Local members will have geographical and cultural knowledge of your area of operations, and non-local members might be able to work shifts that local members will not be able to cover and provide surge support as needed.


Basic VOST roles and structure:

VOST EM liaison or agency liaison: person in the agency or organization that the VOST is being created to support. (Often a PIO, but not always.)

VOST team lead: works with VOST agency liaison to create mission and objectives for a team; has a thorough knowledge of social media platforms, VOST methods and tools, and how social media is used by the public in disasters, and communicates directly with the VOST agency liaison.

VOST team members: Members may have varying skill levels, from advanced users capable of identifying platforms to be monitored, set up advanced search tools or set up incident-specific social media accounts as needed, to VOST beginners who can run pre-set searches and reports. VOST team members communicate with fellow team members and the VOST team lead.



A VOST can be set up to support any type of incident, event or disaster; it can have a very narrowly focused mission or can take on more complex tasks, depending on how many people you have to help and the skills of your VOST team members. A VOST can be set up and operated using volunteers, using in-house staff, or using a combination of both. The most important thing is to set up ahead of time so that you have an established, trusted relationship with your team. If you have specific needs, such as image curation, mapping or crowdsourcing support, you’ll need to look for VOST team members with those skills – don’t assume that every team member has those skills.


Scope of VOST Duties

It’s also possible for a VOST to not only listen and report what’s happening in a disaster, but also to set up and be ready to amplify your messaging. They can do this with your existing social media accounts or with incident-specific accounts that are set up as needed. For instance, wildfires often occur in rural areas, and may cross boundary lines. Setting up incident-specific accounts allows day-to-day operations to continue on local accounts.


As an emergency manager, once you determine that there’s a need to activate your VOST, you contact the VOST team lead to activate the team. Most teams are then activated via group text. Sometimes, if there’s some prior warning that an activation will occur, the team is notified in the team Skype room or via email.


Once the team is activated, they assemble in the VOST Team Skype room and discuss the mission and its expected duration. Then a new incident-specific Skype room is set up, and the activation moves to the incident-specific activation room. The team lead sets up a shared VOST “workbook” (a Google collaborative spreadsheet), and after team members add their availability and contact information, they get to work.

The team typically starts by locating all relevant verified local accounts that will be sharing relevant information, then saving links to all of these accounts to the “Key Websites and Resources” tab in the workbook. Members are assigned to monitor these accounts. Other team members start running searches on major platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others as needed. VOSTies run keyword searches, geosearches and hashtag searches to find information, and begin sorting it according to the mission.


The VOST continues to search all major social media platforms for relevant accounts, posts on those accounts, and comments on the posts. We look for local news sites, including traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio stations with websites, and search for relevant posts, articles and comments from the public on those articles. We try to identify hashtags and keep track of them as they change on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We listen on social media for individual needs and for trends in needs. We listen for both the good and bad information being shared by the public and all other agencies and organizations who are working the disaster, and we report this as needed to the agency we’re supporting. Sensitive or urgent matters are escalated to the agency liaison immediately, and matters that are less urgent but important are communicated when the agency liaison asks, or in a regular report once a reporting schedule is established. The VOST EM/agency liaison and team lead adjust the VOST mission as needed throughout the activation. The tools used and the platforms we search change constantly, but basically a VOST listens on social media to see what the needs, concerns, questions and issues are, and gets that info to people who can help.


Once you build a VOST and get comfortable with the team finding and sharing useful information with your agency or organization, you also may wish to have them support your messaging or the amplification of messages. You can decide if that’s needed once you have the team supporting you with listening and reporting. Uniform Training in Tools


One thing that will help keep the VOST concept strong and growing is uniform training in the use of the same basic VOST tools. Some of the tools, such as the Skype chat room and shared VOST Workbook (a shared Google spreadsheet), help make us more resilient if we train all members to use the same basic resources. If we adhere to this, we can bring people in very rapidly from other teams to support each others’ efforts. If we keep training all VOSTs to use the same basic tools, we’ll always be able to draw from the larger VOST community for surge support as needed. This ability for teams to easily provide mutual aid and surge support when more help is needed is a very powerful part of the VOST concept.


The platforms that we search on social media are constantly changing. New ones come and go, so it’s important for us to share that as we identify new platforms. That’s why an important part of the VOST concept is staying involved with the overall VOST community, sharing as we learn which platforms are being used currently, identifying new and upcoming platforms that get used by different communities, and sharing that information with others. We have ongoing VOST conversations on the #VOST and #SMEM hashtags on Twitter and in the “All Things VOS” Skype room. We also have a monthly VOST leadership coalition call that all teams are welcome to participate in.


A new Virtual Emergency Management Association is forming to address the issues and needs of virtual team members. We’re always happy to add new people to the VOST Skype room or answer questions asked on the #VOST hashtag.


During the past five years, VOSTs have been activated for earthquakes, wildfires, floods, storms, public health emergencies, tornadoes, hurricanes, and more. Since VOST uses ICS, the concept scales well for incidents of all sizes, from minor to catastrophic. Many VOSTies are on multiple VOST teams, and we often support each others’ team activations when requested. This is a way to help others and to build relationships with other teams, so that we can feel comfortable calling on them for surge support when needed. This also helps us all to stay current with the constantly changing landscape of social media platforms and apps. There’s no better way to train for VOST work than to help someone else on a real, live VOST activation.


Set up your VOST team now so that it’s ready when you need it. Feel free to reach out to VOSTies – especially on Twitter! You’ll see us talking on the #VOST twitter hashtag, and we love to share information and learn from each other. We’re all very enthusiatic to help grow the concept, so that we can call on each other for support when we need help from others. Join us!
Disclaimer: I’m just one VOSTie, and I’m sure opinions will vary regarding VOST structure and missions. I didn’t really speak to the overall vision that we have for VOST, since my vision might be different from that of others. I can say, though, that we all want to help those affected by disasters and emergencies, and we want to help emergency managers to quickly acquire the information they need to help their communities. Thanks to all my fellow VOSTies who I’ve learned with and from. Much of this article is built from my work with these great people. And feel free to contact me as well, I’m always happy to help.



NOTE: The recently formed Virtual Emergency Management Association is taking the lead in moving the VOST initiative forward, working on VOST presentations, training modules as well as beginning work on criteria for credentialing and resource typing. I’m on the board of this organization, and I’m so proud to get to get to work with this great group of folks. If you want to help or to learn more about the VOST concept or Virtual EMA, please contact us through the Virtual EMA site (link above) or via the Virtual EMA  social media accounts to learn more and get involved.

Thanks to Sara Miller (@scba) who helped edit and made helpful suggestions to the original version of this article for IAEM.

And thanks to my many many VOST friends and colleagues who make VOST possible and so helpful when it is really needed.

ORVOST? WAVOST? CascadiaVOST? New Pacific Northwest VOST(s?) coming soon!

VOST_logos_PNWI’m currently working with Oregon Office of Emergency Management and some other great Oregon and Washington area emergency managers to build a VOST. I mentioned recently on the VOST Leadership Coalition call that the Oregon VOST group has had a couple of introductory meetings, and then on May 5th we had our first training. We had 20 people in the EOC in Salem for this, and we had another 40 or so on the webinar. Our next training will be on June 17th. (If interested in participating in this training, contact me or Cory Grogan, OR-OEM Public Information Officer.)

Aside from solid VOST interest from people in Oregon, we’re getting lots of interest from Washington state emergency managers. This has made the Oregon OEM PIO and I reconsider our strategy, and we’re now thinking of a possible regional VOST that will train both Oregon and Washington folks at the same time. We’ll be talking this week with representatives from Washington about the possibility of a regional team and how that would work.

I’ve reserved some VOST team names on twitter, facebook, Instagram and WordPress to be ready to use as needed, since we’re now moving relatively quickly towards having a team (or teams?) to use these resources; first for outreach, then for training, then for regular use by the team as needed. Some of the VOST names reserved are ORVOST, WAVOST and CascadiaVOST. It’s important to acquire these accounts on all major platforms so that they are not grabbed and held by others who may not be part of our actual VOST movement (this has happened recently; some VOST account names are being held by unknown parties.).  Since these newly forming teams are not yet official and functioning, and the possible team names are not set yet, they are not yet registered with, which for the time being is the place where VOST logos and teams are sharing team info and entering the VOST system.

I look forward to a day in the near future when these tentative VOST resources are official and being used regularly to help emergency managers and the communities they serve, and the disaster survivors that we all want to help. When that day comes, I know that our new VOSTs and VOST Team members will be welcomed in the All Things VOS Skype room where we all discuss VOST-related activities and news, and to the VOST Leadership Coalition. I look forward to registering those new VOST accounts as active, official VOSTs.

We’re getting close to the day when that will happen, and I appreciate the help of all who’ve been so welcoming to our new VOST friends. Thanks to all of you, both forward-thinking emergency managers and the amazing, talented, enthusiastic VOST volunteers who I’ve so enjoyed working with and learning from. I look forward to continuing to work with you all on building the VOST concept out for all who want and need one of these teams of awesome people.You all inspire me. @sct_r

Disaster Relief Trials and VOST

I’ve been inspired by the work of the great people who’ve been putting together Disaster Relief Trials events for a while now, but I never quite manage to get involved. I decided last year that I would try hard to participate in some way this year.

In the fall of last year I started converting one of my mountain bikes in to a utility bike, and have been working at it all winter so that I could not only start using my bike to get groceries and run errands, but I also have set it up so that I can haul two five gallon buckets of water and a lot of other stuff, hopefully at least up to 100 pounds, as is required to enter the “cargo hauling category”.

Here’s where my bike is now:


I have a few more tweaks to perform, but it’s basically ready, and now I just need to start riding with increasing amounts of weight on to get used to hauling more than a moderate load of groceries.

And now it seems that I may be able to incorporate some social media and VOST in to the DRT 2015 event.

Emma Stocker who’s leading the Portland DRT 2015 event approached Cory Grogan (Oregon Office of Emergency Management Public Information Officer) and I with the possibility of getting our newly formed Oregon VOST team involved in the event this year. We’re beginning discussions and not sure how we’ll use the team besides message support and amplification, but I’m very excited to see how VOST can help with this event. Mapping? Damage Assessment? If you have ideas let me know.

Here are some Disaster Relief Trials links and resources (more soon):

Disaster Relief Trials facebook page

Cargo bikes reach new heights at ‘Disaster Relief Trials’

Disaster Relief Trials Video

another Disaster Relief Trials Video

More blog posts and videos on the BikePortland blog

what questions are the people you follow asking right now on twitter? find out with the question mark/follow search

The question mark search is one of the best searches that you can run on twitter during a disaster or incident. It gives you some insight in to what people are thinking, asking or needing to know.  You can run a question mark search with a geosearch of a specific area, or a question mark and hashtag or keyword search; this can immediately give you a look at what is known and not known, what are the concerns and needs, both on site and off site.

It’s also a great way to see what people that you follow on twitter are asking, working on or thinking about at any given time, and a great way to learn to use question mark searches on twitter. Try it some time! Here’s how. First, open your twitter account on


Type a question mark in the search window and run the search (click on magnifying glass icon or press “Enter”.)


Now click on “People you follow.”


The results will be all tweets from people that you follow containing question marks (and questions usually).

qmarkblog4 This is a great way to get to know those that you follow. You might even be able to help people by answering their questions, or get a great twitter conversation going.

Next, we’ll refine the search by adding additional keywords to the search. It happens to be Valentines Day, so let’s just add the word Valentine to our question mark search and run it again.


Play around with this yourself. Maybe try adding a hashtag or a geosearch to it to see what you get.
Happy Valentines Day from thinkdisaster blog!

UPDATE: I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier: try the same search with a heart instead of a question mark! <3 (keep in mind that when you run that search on twitter before you refine the results, you may get some NSFW (not safe for work) content. Use your best judgement.

Here’s my <3 search results:


Q: How reliable is social media during a disaster? A: Very.

I originally wrote this as a response to an article I came across that suggested strongly that social media is unreliable in disasters. The information provided was inaccurate and I thought that those reading it would be misled if the information presented wasn’t challenged, so I wrote a response, and contacted the author as well as the person interviewed for the article.

I’ve rewritten my original response/comment to make it a better blog post, but the original is available here.


The idea that the entire internet and/or social media will become inaccessible during disasters is incorrect, and is also the wrong way to think about social media use for disasters.

First of all, most disasters do not take down all power and all internet access. Very few do.

Of course it is possible that in a massive catastrophe – such as a very large earthquake – power will be lost and those who are using computers for net access may be unable to use those particular devices until power and internet are restored.

But an ever increasing number of people access the internet via mobile devices, and in all but the most massive disasters, most people who have mobile will continue to have reduced but useable access to a very important and powerful communication device; their phone, via text and twitter (twitter works via SMS text technology, which is what makes it such a valuable and important disaster tool).

Even though voice communication locks up fast on both land lines and cellular lines, usually SMS texting stays up and working, as long as the cell towers are up and powered via their emergency gas generators. This has proven true in both the recent Christchurch New Zealand and Tohoku, Japan quakes. As a matter of fact, over half a million people in Japan signed up for twitter during the first week after their 2010 Tohoku quake, as it was one of the only forms of reliable communication to be had.

Consider that even when cellular communications do go down temporarily, they are among the first bits of infrastructure to be restored. There are specialized communications teams such as the one provided by the Cisco TACOPS team, and the nonprofit Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) whose sole purpose is going in rapidly to help reestablish communications and net access for communities that have been hit by disaster.

The American Red Cross has their “DigiDOC” Or “Digital Operations Center” to monitor social media during disasters, and is also making an effort to provide mobile phone charging stations and net access in shelters, as they see how helpful this is with getting people connected to their families and friends via social media, which helps get them out of the shelter and started on the path to recovery faster. Here’s a recent article from their site: “Improved Access to Technology Can Save Lives in Emergencies”. Red Cross also has many amazingly helpful smart phone apps which help people to find their local shelter in a disaster, and provide useful information for dealing with many specific types of disasters and emergencies, plus how to prepare in advance.

Secondly, disasters are far more than just the “during a disaster” phase, or “response phase”. Social media is useful in all phases of disaster, before during and long after. Even on the rare occasions when social media is not easily accessible at the center of a major disaster location, it is still working everywhere else, and people outside of a hard-hit disaster area are instantly sharing whatever information they can get from the disaster site via social media. If we know how to monitor and make use of this information that is being shared via social media by those outside of the disaster area about those inside the disaster area, it enhances our situational awareness, and our ability to help our community to recover.

Emergency managers nationwide and worldwide are now turning to social media more and more during all phases of disasters to communicate with their communities on the platforms where they are active in their daily lives. It’s only natural that they will turn to social media for information and assistance during a disaster just as they do on a day-to-day basis.

It’s not uncommon for people to think that social media will be inaccessible in disasters, but respectfully, it is not correct, and the wrong way to consider information sharing during disasters.


As I said, I talked to Mr. Ryan Torok who wrote the “How reliable is social media during a disaster?” article. He was pleased to discuss the article, and wished he had met me before he wrote the article. We had a nice discussion of where he could go for more information for future articles, which I look forward to reading.

I also contacted Mark Benthien, communications director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), who was quoted in the other article. I expressed my concern with the article and asked that he read my response. He agreed completely with my response to the article, and said he had been misquoted.

As I travel the country teaching the NDPTC social media course (FEMA PER-304), I hear this “social media unreliable during disasters” concept mentioned occasionally, and I always try to take the time to knock it down, since otherwise the result is that people who should be learning to use social media in disasters will use it as an excuse to stubbornly refuse to learn. This is my attempt to bust this myth once and for all.

a basic twitter geocode search how-to

This is a quick and rough tutorial that I just completed for a volunteer effort that I’m helping with. I thought it might helpful others, so I’m sharing it here – hope it’s helpful. ^sr


1 – Go to Bing Maps to get the latitude/longitude for the search:

2 – enter the location in the search bar. if you have an address, include it, but you can also use a town name and state, or a town name and country.

NOTE: On occasion you will get more than one result – usually when this happens, if you can’t verify the incident location in the information provided, seek to verify location by searching for additional information, starting with Google Maps, then Wikipedia. (or if you have team members familiar with the incident location, ask for assistance in verifying.)

2a – Take the time to drop your newly copied lat/long in to Google Maps and confirm visually that this is the location you are wanting to search.


It’s good to double-check your results on a couple of platforms.


3 – The latitude/longitude result will appear on the left of the Bing window. I recommend you open a “worksheet” (such as a plaintext document or notes document) which is sort of like “digital scratch paper”.

Here’s the above setup if you want to just copy/paste it to your own worksheet:


4 – Copy the lat/long and paste it to your worksheet.

5 – Also paste the lat/long into the placeholder area of the saved geocode template. (double click the underlined area in the geocode template; that’s where the lat/long goes – make sure there are no spaces between the colon and the comma, or the geocode search won’t work when you take it to twitter search)

6 – Now copy and paste the entire geocode from the worksheet over to twitter search window.

7 – The search above is set to a search radius of “10km” or 10 kilometers.You can make the size of the search as small as .1km or as large as 2500km. Just delete the 10 and change it to the size you wish to search.

I tend to start with a moderate size search, depending on the estimated population density. (run some test searches to see what kind of results you get, then change the search radius, making it larger and smaller to see the effect.)

8 – If you aren’t finding the information you expected to see in this area by making the search smaller and larger, t’s time to add some additional search terms to your geocode search.

Try adding words that are common to the type of incident that you are searching. For instance, if there is a severe windstorm or hurricane, first you would try searches using words like “storm”, “trapped”, “damage”, “power out”, then later in the disaster you’d be running searches such as “shelter” “closed” “open”, “missing” “lost”. Also remember to occasionally run question mark searches, like this:

[? geocode:46.189770,-123.833946,10km]

Question mark searches will often help you to spot needs and trends.

9 – Once you’re getting useful search results, take the information that you’re finding back to your group and share. If you think it’s important, remember to save the URL for the page so that you can get back to it later.

I’m in the process of putting together a search term directory/index for various types of disasters. I’ll link to it here once I have that done or well underway.

Additionally: It’s also helpful to have some common geocode searches prepared in a spreadsheet in advance. Here’s what that can look like:


I’m going to build a prepared template in googledocs and share soon.


description of how to convert military location coordinates

to a useable lat/long format for geocode searches.

Converter for military location coordinates to lat/long for geocode searches is here:


Some military coordinates are given like this: N112131 E1253766 -copy and enter that into the “Position” window in the converter, then pres “Calc” button to get lat/long result – it will look like this:

Degrees Lat Long 11.3586111°, 125.6350000°

-take out the “°” and the space, so that it looks like this:


-now copy this lat/long to your geocode search.


NOTE: Also see in-depth instructions and search walk-through here: “finding and sharing disaster info on twitter” on this blog. ^sr

Old and New Disaster Workers Learning to Work Together (re-post from


This is an article I wrote for shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and it still appears to be relevant. I am hearing similar discussions amongst my #SMEM and #VOST friends, so I wanted to share it over here on my own blog. The original post can still be found here.

Old and New Disaster Workers Learning to Work Together

I’m in the fortunate position of being connected to long-established disaster volunteer organizations, and to some of the new social media-based Virtual Technical Communities (VTCs).

The VTCs and ad hoc groups are born from and are already up to speed on social media, and they bring new enthusiasm to disaster efforts. Communities have always responded spontaneously to their own disasters, but social media has now made it easier and faster for these new groups to form, organize, and deploy.

Unfortunately, social media also has a way of amplifying complaints – some legitimate and some unrealistic. Many in established emergency preparedness and response organizations struggle to adapt to the new “open” concept and haven’t yet embraced the interactive and open nature of social media. Most now realize the need, but don’t yet have a strategy or plan.

Many in the VTCs–and especially in the ever-newly-forming ad hoc groups which occur locally for every disaster–are new to the disaster process of delivery and long-term recovery, and don’t understand the complex web of disaster roles and responsibilities of local and federal governments, emergency management (EM) regulatory agencies, and utilities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), and more. Therefore, the newcomers are frustrated that established agencies can’t move faster both on the ground and in engagement with them both on-site and on the Internet.

While there are many shining examples of social media use and crowdsourcing by some EM agencies, they are not yet the norm. Many have been slow to embrace social media and the open concept, and slower still to use collaborative docs and other new crowdsourcing tools. Both the VTCs and the public expect their government agencies to be accessible and expect to see active social media accounts.

Some of the frustrations from both sides have merit, and some of the frustrations from both sides about the other are based on misunderstandings and a lack of trust. Most of these issues will resolve themselves soon, so I look forward to the day when we can all work together.
One example of this struggle for which I’ve had a front-row seat is in the world of disaster recovery and VOAD. My social media colleague Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt and I are assisting National VOAD with social media during the Hurricane Sandy recovery effort. National VOAD was so busy with recovery coordination that their social media presence was briefly unattended, which resulted in some undeserved negative posts. This was easily and quickly remedied by regularly answering questions and comments, and posting.

The next step is to move toward active use of social media to collaborate with other VOAD organizations and cooperate with VTCs and spontaneous volunteers by coordinating recovery efforts via social media tools such as crowdsourcing, collaborative documents via emergency workflow models being developed by VTCs, the Social Media for Emergency Management (SMEM) Community, and Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) initiatives.