Author Archive

Social Media Training During Major (non-disaster) Events


I really enjoyed participating yesterday in a Presidential Inauguration 2013 social media monitoring exercise.

This came about because of a conversation between colleagues during our weekly twitter #smemchat. A few of us discussed the possibility of monitoring social media during the inauguration, then set up a Skype chat room and invited all who wanted to participate to join us there to discuss what we’d like to do.

We set up monitoring tools and saved all official social media accounts related to the inaugural event and important websites to one handy document so that the monitoring team could share and have access to them. In that same document (called a “workbook” when we use it for official activations), we also shared our contact info and logged major actions taken, as well as things that we noticed were happening during the event on social media.

We kept in touch about what we were seeing in the Skype chat room (via text chat). We looked for problems, then tried to share that information to help people find it via twitter. If we had an official agency to work with we could have done more, been more focused and perhaps been more effective, but even without that, we still got to test the tools and practice, which is always good, since new tools are available all of the time, and platforms change the way they work constantly. Practice is essential for maintaining good social media monitoring skills.

Even more important than the social media tools is the outreach and team-building, and getting to work with people to establish a relationship and build trust. This is essential to working together via social media (as it is with almost any group). During this event I got to work with some people that I knew through casual conversations on social media, but had not yet gotten to work with. This was my favorite part of the exercise.

Mostly the day seemed to go well, and while there were predictable traffic issues and a few children briefly separated from parents, it was overall a relatively calm day (I’m sure in large part due to the amount of behind-the scenes work of all public safety employees – the scanner was ful of activity!) from the point of view of the general public. We had two locals and three non-locals working on our effort, so we had access to live scanner info, and local knowledge of the region for those of us not so familiar with DC. We also monitored the official United States Park Police text alerts and amplified the text alerts to twitter on the two most active event hashtags, which were #inaug2103 and #inauguration.

We could see what was happening via television radio, public safety scanner channels and what people – ost of people – were reporting via social media. What we didn’t have this time was a connection to an official agency should we find anything that needed to be addressed, or to get direction from as far as what to look for in the social media stream. This potentially would have made the exercise more realistic form the VOST viewpoint, since an actual VOST activation would always have an official agency contact.

We didn’t have an official agency to work with for this one, so this was not a “Virtual Operations Support Team” (VOST) effort, but we used the VOST tools and procedures in a more informal type of operation just for practice. Even as an informal exercise,  all practice is good. So while it was not an “official VOST effort”, many who were not familiar with the way VOST operates got to practice, experiment and learn to work together in a low-pressure setting. Everyone that helped enjoyed themselves and said they’d like to do it again. We may even do another training exercise during the superbowl, and try to get more people to participate. (Post a tweet to the #SMEM hashtag if you’re interested and we can discuss it).

Major cultural and sporting events and the like are great opportunities to train using social media. The number of posts and tweets are simply overwhelming, so it’s great training for searching for useful and important information in the midst of chaos; just like in a disaster. There’s no simulation tool that yet exists that can provide such a realistic demonstration of what you face when trying to monitor social media during a disaster.

My friend and colleague Cheryl Bledsoe of Clark Regional Emergency Services wrote a great post last year after we did a similar impromptu training exercise during the superbowl, describing what this is like. Have a look at that if you have time, as well as the rest or the website; it’s a great resource.

Thanks to all who participated, from Chris Tarantino (@Tarantino4me), Keith Robertory  (@krobertory) and Donna Lee Nardo (@DonnaLeeNardo) and Wayne Blankenship Jr (@WayneDBJr) who first mentioned and supported the idea during #smemchat, to Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt  (ATheRedElm) who helped to select an appropriate version of a VOST-style workbook with which to practice, to Mary Jo Flynn (@MaryJoFly), Caroline Molivadas (@disastermapper) and Karen (@surfingchaos) who worked extremely long shifts,  and others like Mackenzie Kelly (@MKelly007) and Joanna Lane (@ joannalane) who were busy yesterday, but still stopped in to say hello, see how it was going, and discuss what we were doing. Good learning also comes just from discussing the work as you do it, so that’s helpful too.

Social Media Searches and Monitoring Tools for Museums, Archives and Cultural Institutions

tweetgrid multi-column search

I built this how-to guide and list earlier today as a collaborative document, (link below) and I hope that others may still wish to add to the effort.
(Here’s the full link to this page for sharing: )

twitter searches:
Here’s a 10 – column word search using common words that might pull good results for sifting twitter for disaster info:
(also I’ve added a “-RT” in order to limit returns to the original tweets)

To set up more searches on tweetgrid – go here:
• select the amount of columns and layout for columns in your search, then add searches.
• you can also save the searches that you make.  After you set up your searches, click on “ Full Address” in the menu at the top of the window, then copy the full address out of the URL (web address) window in your browser. Save this search for later use, or share with other.

Great post by friend Cheryl Bledsoe (@CherylBle)  on twitter filtering and sharing crisis-related information:
Filtering Out the Noise


Multicolumn Geosearches:
twitter can also be searched by latitude/longitude, from the center of the lat/long out, the smallest search possible is .1km, and the largest saerch possible is 2500km.

Here’s a pre-built template to which you can add any lat/long:

The above search is set for the following ranges: searches at: .1km – 10km – 50km – 100-km and 200km

Go here to obtain a lat/long for the desired location:
• enter an address or city/state, or place of interest
• copy/paste the lat/long with no spaces in to the tweetgrid underlined ”blanks”
• press search
• add additional search words and a blank space to refine the results, such as the word flood sandy museum etc…

Additional info on geosearches available here:
Examples: Searching Twitter by location and with specific keywords by Gahlord Dewald of ThoughtFaucet

Other advances twitter searches
You can also do some very advanced and yet simple searches right within twitter:


Other useful social media search sites/webapps:
most of these search twitter, facebook, blogs & other social media sites

Icerocket –
Bing Social –
Social Mention –
Also would be useful to monitor LinkedIn

Collaboration: VOST Basics Presentation

VOST: The Basics

VOST: The Basics presentation By Caroline Milligan and Scott Reuter

Here’s the VOST Basics presentation Caroline Milligan (@mm4marketing) and I built for introducing new folks to the VOST concept. It’s up on Slideshare for all to use to introduce the VOST concept to their own agencies and organizations. Will post more about this here soon. Enjoy.

(Caroline had already produced a great first presentation that was the inspiration for and became the backbone of this new one. Thanks Caroline, it’s great working with you!)

VOST needs and resources: backchannel & public facing resources for #SMEM

VOST needs and resources

VOST needs and resources

I’m one of several VOST members assisting in the development of many new VOST teams this year. As new teams are gear up for wildfire and other possible activations, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the tools and resources that we’ve used from the point of view of the specific needs instead of based on the tool, app or services.

So below is a list of VOST needs, the purpose or reason behind each need, what resources we’ve used previously to meet that need, and what we plan on using soon.

Each VOST team and activation may create new needs and other VOSTs may already be trying out new things; in other words “your mileage may vary”, but hopefully this post and the graphic I built to identify the “backchannel” or non-public resources as opposed to the public-facing resources will be helpful.

Note that some resources are used both for backchannel and for public sharing. Our plans are to build our backchannel resources, then build activation-specific public-facing resources. This is because, as we learned on the Shadow Lake fire activation, we want to make it clear from the start what incident the team is supporting. This can be done by choosing an instance-specific name and using that name for all public-facing tools.

Also note that we are working on developing backup resources for all needs – If you’re building a team, be sure and include backup resources for all needs in your plans and exercises. Sometimes these resources and services go down temporarily, so be ready for that.

And one more note! I reserve the right to update this post as I am sure that my VOSTie friends will remind me that I forgot something : )


Need: Team or individual activation – emergency or urgent communication
Purpose: Alert team as quickly as possible to an activation or possible activation.
SMS group text messages, individual text messages, or twitter DM messages have been used previously to activate the team or ask them to gather for a discussion.

• Individual SMS Text message

• Group Text Message via regular SMS group text or via GroupMe App

• Individual messages via twitter Direct Message (DM)

Need: Regular ongoing backchannel communications:
Purpose: ‘Offline’ discussions needed to set tasks, clarify issues happening in real time on social media platforms, or other things that don’t need to be discussed in public. Many teams have ongoing regular conversations between activations to keep in touch and discuss new resources, tools and developments. This helps to get people comfortable with each other and the tools/services to be used.

Tools currently used: Skype, Yammer

• Tools proposed: Yammer, GooglePlus

• Tools previously used: Skype, GooglePlus, Yammer

NOTE: There are other backchannel comms tools that meet specialty needs, such as voice chat while driving via HeyTell or Zello apps.

Need: Collaborative Documents
Purpose: Team collaboration on documents for organization, ICS forms or workbook spreadsheets, activity logging, etc…

• Tools currently used: GoogleDocs

• Tools proposed:, SkyDrive

• Tools previously used: Googledocs, Piratepad

Need: Filesharing
Purpose: Sharing documents, images and anything that the team may find useful to meet its objectives.

• Tools currently used: Dropbox

• Tools proposed:Dropbox,, Evernote

• Tools previously used: Dropbox, GoogleDocs

Need: Search tools

• Tools currently used: twitter searches, google searches, tweetgrid, monitter, SocialMention, BING social, twitterfall, trendsmap

• Tools proposed: Geosearches, Multiple geosearches in tweetgrid, tweetdeck, hootsuite, twitterfall, etc…

• Tools previously used: Google searches, searches on twitter and facebook tweetgrid, monitter, SocialMention, BING social, twitterfall, trendsmap (some of us set up multiple searches in tweetgrid, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck)

Need: Curation tools
Purpose: Save all useful info such as websites, articles, social media posts, tweets, status updates quickly and easily to one “stream” or place – may be useful to have one for public use and one for private VOST use; public curationsite for providing an ongoing narrative to the event, private curation site to provide context that will help the team keep updated on critical issues.

• Tools currently used: Storify

• Tools proposed: Storify, Pinterest

• Tools previously used: Keepstream (gone), Storify

Need: Image  sharing/storage tools
Purpose: Images help to provide context and tell the visual story of an event. (Images for Shadow Lake Fire VOST instance were very popular and were a large percentage of the blog site visits.)

• Tools currently used: Flickr, dropbox

• Tools proposed: Flickr, (pinterest?) Skitch (for adding text & graphics to a picture)

• Tools previously used: Flickr (fed to WordPress Blog?), Picasa (gone)

Need: Video streaming and sharing tools:
Purpose: Share live stream of meetings, or videos of events.

• Tools currently used: YouTube, Livestream, Ustream, Vimeo

• Tools proposed: Pinterest

• Tools previously used: YouTube, Livestream, Ustream, Vimeo

 Need: Archiving tools (for saving PDFs of website articles, tweets, posts, status updates, etc…)
Purpose: Archiving and for use during activation.

• Tools currently used: GoogleDocs, Rowfeeder, Tweetchat

• Tools proposed: Make PDF then drop via IFTTT to both Evernote & DropBox

• Tools previously used: Rowfeeder, GoogleDocs, TweetChat

Need: Analytics tools
Purpose: To be able to analyze crisidata for future study and improvement.

• Tools currently used:

• Tools proposed: TweetReach, Google Analytics, ?

• Tools previously used: (Needs improvement! We can look at limited WordPress blog analytics from a couple of specific activations, but we haven’t set up analytics tools previously. Hopefully we will get better at this this year, and if you have suggestions for us, we welcome suggestions.)

Need: Automated workflow tools
Purpose: Automate some basic repetitive tasks that can be done automatically – such as when a facebook blog post is made it can be automatically posted as a facebook post and tweeted

• Tools currently used:

• Tools proposed: IFTTT (If This Then That)

• Tools previously used: ( Seems like we had a couple of automated tasks on Shadow Lake instance; will check and report back here.)


Need: Curation tools
Purpose: Save all useful info such as websites, articles, social media posts, tweets, status updates quickly and easily to one “stream” or place – may be useful to have one for public use and one for private VOST use; public curationsite for providing an ongoing narrative to the event, private curation site to provide context that will help the team keep updated on critical issues.

• Tools currently used: Storify

• Tools proposed: Storify, Pinterest

• Tools previously used: Storify, Keepstream (gone)

Need: Image sharing/storage tools:
Purpose: Images help to provide context and tell the visual story of an event. (Images for Shadow Lake Fire VOST instance were very popular and were a large percentage of the blog site visits.)

• Tools currently used: Flickr, dropbox

• Tools proposed: Flickr, (pinterest?) Skitch (for adding text & graphics to a picture)

• Tools previously used: Flickr (fed to WordPress Blog?)

Need: Video streaming and sharing tools
Purpose: Share live stream of meetings, or videos of events.

• Tools currently used: youtube, livestream, ustream

• Tools proposed: vimeo, pinterest

• Tools previously used: youtube, livestream, ustream

Need: blog or website

Purpose: A place at which to post all available resources and tell more of the story than can be told via twitter or facebook

• Tools currently used: WordPress

• Tools proposed:

• Tools previously used: WordPress

Need: Mapping

Purpose: Visual representation of instance, resources, closures, shelters, etc…

• Tools currently used: NIMO maps (NIMO-specific)

• Tools proposed: Ushahidi, googlemaps

• Tools previously used: NIMO maps uploaded to dropbox – placed on Inciweb and instance blog, Google maps

Needs: Platform-Specific Needs (per activation):
Note: Public -facing resources include instance-specific twitter, facebook and other standard social media platforms. Find out what platforms are use most in the area near the disaster and be there.

Instance-specific accounts for:


• Main account: @activationname

• Backup account: @activationname2



Set up instance specific account as needed

note: check with local community near disaster area to see if a collaboration of facebook is possible  – so far we have set up instance-specific sites

How to Plan & Build a VOST for your Community or Organization

Jeff Phillips VOST startup tweet

Jeff Phillips VOST startup tweet

Today’s the one year anniversary of the VOST Initiative, and in honor of all of the good work that’s been done by the VOST Initiative group and our “Osbourne” VOST Team, and the other VOST groups that are beginning to spring up, I thought I’d share some thoughts on VOST advocacy and setup. *

Why a VOST? (Social Media Preparedness.)
Many people in the SMEM (Social Media in Emergency Management) community are expressing interest in starting a VOST, or Virtual Operation Support Team. While it’s possible to set up a social media operation from scratch with new volunteers during a disaster, it can be very difficult and distracting. It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality, but having some core volunteers in place, having a plan, and being proficient with some basic social media tools will make activating your team for a social media disaster effort much easier.

(If you’re an Emergency Manager working in social media, and you are reading this to see how to set up for Virtual Ops, you can skip this part!)
Community Members: Set Up Now – Hopefully with support from your local Eemergency Management Agency, but if necessary, set it up yourself.
In an ideal world, you would be setting up your social media in disaster/VOST effort with official sanction from your local emergency management agency. Realistically, however, not all EMs are ready or able to accept your VOST in an official way at this point.

Yet social media efforts are happening more and more, almost every time there’s a disaster, so if you have your team and tools in place, you can be ready to operate, inviting all stakeholders to take part, including emergency management. In several recent cases, social media efforts that were started or operated by volunteers were ultimately accepted, used, and praised by local EMs.

If you’re not involved with Emergency Management in your community, make every attempt to include and encourage your local EM agencies to participate in your social media efforts. It is ALWAYS preferable to work with emergency management form the start – but realistically, many EMs are not ready or able to take this step yet.

Be positive, and if your EM says no, stay positive. You will want to ask again in the future when they’re ready to reconsider. Send your local emergency managers, CERT teams, ARES ECs and first responders invitations and info every time you participate in social media; give them gentle but persistent reminders that your group is organizing to assist in disasters. Try to get your foot in the door. Participating in existing disaster-related groups such as CERT and ARES is a great way to gain trust and demonstrate competence.

If you don’t have the time to put together an entire VOST team yourself, that’s okay! Do what you can for now; participate on an existing #VOST team in your spare time, build your skills, be ready to help others on their VOST efforts if needed.

For Emergency Managers:
If you are an Emergency Manager working on social media and VOST development, please consider the following points:

• What social media platforms are being used in my community? (Learn and use.)

• Who are the heavy social media users in your community? (Recruit or join forces.)

• What other organizations are doing interesting social media projects in your community?

Building your VOST in Six (or so) Steps

Building a new VOST does not happen overnight. Here are some suggestions to assist you in creating a VOST for your community or organization, with or without official buy-in from your local emergency management agency.

Step 1: Learn how a VOST works by volunteering with one of the existing groups or teams. ** This experience will help you to see what a VOST can and can’t do, and the networking will help you as you set up your own VOST and for future activations where more than your own team is needed. Begin outreach early to your local emergency management, preparedness, first responders and disaster recovery groups.

Step 2: Get active in social media and in your local community. Learn which social media platforms are used in your community. (You will want to have both local and nonlocal VOST members.) Put out the word that you’re working on this and post updates as you progress.

• 2a- Locally, organize by presenting on the advantages of being prepared to use social media in disasters to those in your community that are interested in all phases of disaster: CERT, ARES, Red Cross, ham clubs, Fire & Rescue, VOADs or COADs, youth groups, community service clubs and faith-based groups.

• 2b- Non-locally, participate on a VOST that is located outside of your area. Take part in the operation, chat with others in the backchannel chat, learn how VOST works and ask if anyone might want to also help you set up your own VOST. Consider signing an MOU with another VOST group outside of your local area so that you can each support each other remotely in a large scale or catastrophic disaster.

Step 3: As your team forms up, get some VOST practice by live-tweeting a live event such as a conference, a sporting event (our VOST had a great time trying this for Super Bowl this year!) or a festival. Ask CERT and ARES groups if you can practice operating on social media before during and after their next preparedness event!

Step 4: As your VOST continues to build its skills, offer to assist others on real disaster activations. Be sure and have members practice a variety of tools and platforms so that they aren’t too specialized. Document your efforts so that you can present the results of your efforts to local emergency management agencies, disaster – related groups, and the VOST Initiative Community.

Step 5: Link up with other VOST groups so that we can all support each other in disasters. Participate in #SMEMchat and the #VOSTchat, share what you’re doing on your VOST blog or facebook page. Help to build the community so that there are more people trained to assist in this effort.

Step 6: Keep building the local community connections that will help you to make your social media effort work well with other local efforts, including emergency management and all disaster-related organizations. Be ready to offer your VOST when needed. We are a volunteer technical community that has to demonstrate our ability to help, just as ham radio operators did – now they are in every EOC during disasters. We can be too some day.

Well done! You have a VOST now.
By the time you work your way through these steps, you should have a good VOST group that can help your community as well as others.

Stay tuned for Part 2!
Next post: Nuts & Bolts (Tools & Platforms) for actual VOST Setup



* Special thanks to Jeff Phillips, @LosRanchosEM, who one year ago today put out the call on twitter for the first VOST volunteers. I’m proud to be a member of the Osbourne VOST!

** For more info on VOST team formation, watch the #SMEM and #VOST hashtags on twitter, and visit the website for more info and to share your efforts with the rest of us!

Special thanks to Cheryl Bledsoe @CherylBle and Jeff Phillips @_JSPhillips for their input and encouragement on this post and for their hard work and dedication to the #SMEM and #VOST Initiatives. The many other talented VOST Members also deserve recognition, and they’re all listed in my previous post on this site called “VOST: Virtual Operations Support”.

IRL: Can we be friends “In Real Life” if we haven’t met in person yet? (A Virtual Rant.)

Discussion of "Virtual Friends" with @jgarrow

Discussion of "Virtual Friends" with @jgarrow

Over the course of the last year and a half I’ve gotten heavily involved in efforts to use social media in disasters.

The friendships that have developed are real, and are now a part of my life, just as much so as other friends, family, and people in the local communities in which I participate.

I’ve been working with my new friends on a series of social media disaster response and recovery efforts; wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes – you can find most of us by searching the hashtag #SMEM (social media in emergency management) at any given time. (Or #SMEMchat on Fridays at 12:30 EST!)

As you can imagine, working on a disaster in any phase is something that one must take seriously. The response phase can be especially stressful, even when you’re working the disaster from hundreds of miles away in front of a computer.

Searching through fast running waterfalls of tweets, status updates, blog posts and news stories for useful, accurate and timely data then sharing it to the appropriate map, curated stream or wiki works better when you’re coordinating the effort with a group. That’s why groups such as Crisis Commons, Humanity Road, Crisis Mappers, Tweak the Tweet and Standby Task Force exist. There’s simply too much data to sift through yorself – you need to work with a group.

A small group within a group of us who enjoy working together on developing these tools and techniques have set up what we’ve called a VOST or “Virtual Operations Support” Team. We are emergency managers and volunteers who have been described as disaster geeks, zealots, champions and other things – mostly we just like helping people and seeing if we can find better ways to help people in all phases of disasters. (See my other posts on the VOST Initiative on this blog.) 

Even though I still use it, I’m annoyed by the word “virtual” in reference to the disaster work that we do. It’s very real and important work, and I know it’s just a word, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying that we refer to it as that. And don’t even get me started on IRL, or “In Real Life”. I recall a few weeks ago in our VOST chat group that someone said they were soon going to meet another of our group “In Real Life”, which reminded me that there were many people in our group who I still only know by text and video chat, by email and by our “virtual” work together.

It annoys me that the people – people who I consider friends – people that I work with in difficult situations, complain and laugh with in social media – are tagged as “virtual” communities. They are not virtual by my understanding of the word. I’m proud to be working with them, whether they live within driving distance or not.

If you’re lucky, (or if you plan for it as Jeff Phillips did in out VOST group), your social media groups will want to talk and develop relationships outside of disaster activations. Thanks for working with me, my very real SMEM and VOST  friends; my life is richer by “virtue” of knowing you.

The VOST Instance Lifecycle

VOST Instance Cycle Graphic

The VOST Instance Cycle

Please review and comment -sr

The VOST Instance Cycle:

Disaster occurs or event selected

-VOST members gather in predesignated meeting place using predetermined methods (Our team uses Skype, twitter DMs (direct messages) or in an emergency, text messages

– in the case of an exercise, this may be known about and planned in advance, or it may be an impromptu exercise (see #SMEMbowl)

Decision to activate, team commitment

– VOST leader and members discuss need for deployment , team availability

– often a VOST deployment is requested, or may be offered if members see need (MOUs would be helpful here)

– decision to activate made

Set tasks, priorities, schedule, tools/platforms

– VOST leader uses modified ICS 204 document template to describe incident and assignment, define tasks

– VOST members fill in vailabilty on collaborative ICS 204 doc, read up on incident, goals and tasks, discuss as needed (backchannel chat – our VOST uses Skype for this currently) to understand assignment

VOST operational; coordinate, perform and log completed tasks

– Active monitoring of social media and internet for pertinent data, responding via all platforms as appropriate, coordinating efforts/tasks via backchannel chat – saving and sharing of data as needed to blog, social media platforms, curation site, crisis maps, archive, etc…

VOST expands/contracts according to ICS principles

– Be prepared to call for assistance from more #SMEM volunteers or other VOSTs as needed so as not to be overwhelmed

Deactivation, discussion, documentation, AAR

– After instance is completed, continue backchanne discussion, discuss what worked & what didn’t, document and report, share with the #SMEM and #VOST community so that others can learn from it.

VOST exercises between activations to stay current on tools and social media platforms.

Special Note: Please PLAN AHEAD FOR RECOVERY: In all planning, data collection, and social platform work, consider not just what the immediate disaster needs are, but what will be needed for the long-term recovery phases of the disaster. Be prepared to coordinate efforts and share info with recovery groups as early as possible so as to improve the quality and speed ofthe recovery 

Special Note: Part 2 of PLAN AHEAD FOR RECOVERY: While spontaneous volunteers can be tremendously helpful, your core VOST team of “trusted agents” needs to be built in advance of the disaster and needs to practice working together. Build you VOST now.