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 TheRedElm.com

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

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