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: http://www.earthpoint.us/convert.aspx


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 FirstResponder.gov)


This is an article I wrote for FirstResponder.gov 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.

twitter lists for disasters

Next to building a network of trusted relationships with agencies, orgs and people via social media in advance of a disaster, one of the most important tools to build in advance are twitter lists and social media lists. These are places that you can look to fast to see what’s being reported in your area, and to see what your trusted network of peer agencies and organizations are saying.

I recommend building two lists for your area (one each of these two if you are responsible for multiple regions):

1- Local EM List

Put all accounts on this list that are related to sharing official information for their agency that affect the public during possible emergencies or disasters.

Emergency management, all public safety related organizations, state police, local police, sheriff, fire & rescue, public heath agencies, city and county accounts, department of transportation, power company, red cross, disaster related volunteer groups CERT, VOAD, local ARES (amateur radio emergency services) and ham clubs, in other words, anyone that you would want to hear from and communicate with in a potential emergency or disaster.

2 – Local Media List

Add all local media accounts such as local radio station accounts, newspapers, any television stations that cover news in your area (even if they are not right in your city), local news blogs, etc…

How do you find the accounts to follow? Start with the accounts that are easy to find. As you find new accounts, look at their followers, the accounts that they follow, and add accounts to your list as appropriate.

If you are responsible for a county with two or more large population centers, you may want to have a list for each of them. A state EM agency might ask each county to make their own list and then the state can track each of these lists.

More on twitter lists:

Twitter recently changed lists so that each twitter account can have 1,000 lists, and each list can have up to 5,000 accounts max listed on it. (for EM purposes you won’t need anywhere near that many people.)

FACEBOOK INTEREST LISTS: My VOST – SMEM colleague Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt just posted this very helpful guide: How To: Create a Facebook Interest List on her “The Red Elm” blog.

HOW-TO: twitter  post on using twitter lists

new VOST – SMEM twitter monitoring suggestion using tweetdeck (update)

Many of our #SMEM and #VOST folks have been struggling since the loss of tweetgrid.

The big missing piece for monitoring and searches since the recent twitter API changes brought down tweetgrid is not just a loss of easy viewing with multicolumn searches. We lost the ability to set up all of these searches once so that we don’t all have to build the searches individually. Tweetgrid was a huge timesaver and also allowed us to rapidly share searches with the public.

When we were on a VOST debrief call Monday for the Owyhee Fire VOST activation, we were talking about searches and monitoring, and it occurred to me that if we set up an activation-specific tweetdeck space using the activation-specific twitter account, we can list it as a resource along with our other VOST tools, and share the password with the team. Then any of us can go log in and use that set of  searches from that account any time we like without everyone having to rebuild all of those searches.

Colleague and PNW2VOST team lead Marlita Reddy-Hjelmfelt was leading the meeting and she agreed that this was a good idea, and said that she also thought about doing this. Jeff Phillips agreed it was worth trying, and we quickly tried it on tweetdeck to see if two of us could be logged in – it worked just fine.

This is not as good a solution as tweetgrid was, but it can be a big time-saver, and well worth the trouble of setting up on medium to large disaster activations. It still doesn’t allow us to share multicolumn searches out to the public fast, but at least we can use tweetgrid as a team tool.

So the procedure would be:

– Decide that the disaster activation is big enough to justify the time it will take to set up the activation-specific tweetgrid account and then set up text, hashtag and geocode searches.

– Use the activation-specific twitter account and email account to set up tweetdeck, then build a preliminary set of text, hashtag and geocode searches in columns on that account.

– Save the tweetdeck URL, account info and password to the shared resources document for your VOST team.

Note: This is also potentially a useful tool for all EMs and disaster org folks who may want to set up a specific twitter and tweetdeck account to share with a trusted team in a specific geographic location. For example you could set up an account to share with your “trusted agents” and set up to search local hashtags, place-names and maybe geocode searches for likely disaster areas – for instance if you have regions that are likely to flood…

If you have this account set up and ready, you could use it to train during drills, then everyone will know where it is and how to use it when needed.

Maybe others are already doing this? I’d love to hear from you.


Update: @JeremyOps mentioned via twitter that he uses this technique:

“@JeremyOps Jul 17, 8:56am via Twitter for iPhone
@sct_r my team does this using the web app. Only challenge is everyone needs to refresh to see when someone makes changes to searches/column”

Using Advanced twitter search (helpful for smartphone and tablet searches!)

Occasionally when you find yourself without access to a computer, performing advanced twitter searches can be difficult; especially if you don’t have the “advanced search operators” memorized. (Attention: twitter app makers -I haven’t located a good advanced search phone app for twitter – help!*)

Luckily, twitter has a great page discussing this on their website.

Unfortunately, the operators were saved on the above page as an image, making it difficult to save them to my notes. So I transcribed them to text, and here they are – I advise you to save these to your notes on your phone so that you have them handy if needed. I also added a simple goecode search example to the bottom of the list. You would need to find the lat/long and insert in place of the one that is there for an example.

Using Advanced twitter search (from twitter help center)

Operator:  =  Finds tweets:

twitter search  =  containing both “twitter and “search”. This is the default operator.

“happy hour”  =  containing the exact phrase “happy hour”.

love OR hate  =  containing either “love” or “hate” (or both).

beer -root  =  containing “beer” but not “root.

#haiku  =  containing the hashtag “haiku”.

from:alexiscold  =  sent from the person “alexiscold”.

to:techcrunch  =  sent to person “techcrunch”.

@mashable  =  referencing person “mashable”.

“happy hour” near:”san francisco”  =  containing the exact phrase “happy hour” and sent near “san francisco”.

near:NYC within:15mi  =  sent within 15 miles of “NYC”.

superhero since:2010-12-27  =  containing “superhero” and sent since date “2010-12-27”.

ftw until:2010-12-27  =  containing “ftw” and sent up to date “2010-12-27”.

movie -scary :)  =  containing “movie”, but not “scary”, and with a positive attitude.

flight :(  =  containing “flight” and with a negative attitude.

traffic ?  =  containing “traffic” and asking a question.

hilarious filter:links  =  containing “hilarious” and linking to URLs.

news source:twitterfeed  =  containing “news” and entered via TwitterFeed.

ALSO geocode searches: 

geocode:45.523452,-122.676207,10km  =  searches a specific lat/long within 10km

(smallest possible geosearch is .1km and largest is 2500km)

you can use geocode along with combinations of the above search operators

Note: find the lat/long for a place or an address here:


If you’re an emergency manager or disaster organization employee that’s responsible for a specific region or place, you may want to find and save some lat/longs ahead of time to speed up your search creation.

Also see:

 Twitter for Newsrooms: #Report 

reason for this post: this morning while trying to do some advanced searches from my iPhone, I realized that you cannot get to the advanced search twitter page from an iPhone or iPad because as soon as you enter the URL “twitter.com/search-advanced” in a mobile browser, you’re directed to twitter mobile app and told that the page you are searching for doesn’t exist : (

* If you know of a good twitter advanced search app for iPhone or Android, please post in the comments.

finding and sharing disaster info on twitter (UPDATE)



UPDATE: due to twitter API changes, tweetgrid has stopped working – and there’s no word on how long it will be before it’s working again.

There are certainly other options for running searches using the search techniques discussed below, but they  don’t include easily shareable web-based multicolumn searches yet. After a discussion this morning on #smemchat, it seems as if we are all looking for solutions and work-arounds.

Kate Starbird  and her team are working on a possible solution (hopefully available mid to late fall)

Many of us are simply setting up multicolumn searches using tweetdeck and hootsuite. This doesn’t make things easily shareable, however, which is important for #SMEM and #VOST social media/disaster work.

Mary Jo Flynn now has an agency account for Geofeedia, and is testing it. Chris Tarantino also has access to geoffedia and is testing. I’ve used their trial, but as Geofeedia pointed out, the trial version is limited and doesn’t deliver all data. I’m looking forward to hearing from Mary Jo and Chris how they like it.

As Chris Tarantino pointed out, it’s pretty easy to open text and geosearches as well as text/geosearch combination searches in tweetdeck, and then move the most productive searches over to an advanced twitter search, which can be saved and shared one search at a time. Not ideal, but workable.

Humanity Road also shared this great “hashboard” page that they’ve added to their website – it’s great to have access to this, and I’m sure it will be helpful, especially during the early moments of many types of disasters, prior to disaster-specific hashtags popping up within each disaster.

Here’s a link to the entire discussion that we had regarding this on #smemchat this morning. Thanks to Mary Jo Flynn for her input, ideas and also for the chat  archiving!

I’ll definitely keep udpating here and posting as we find new/better solutions.


Original Post:

Here’s a step-by-step how-to narrative for rapidly finding useful info on twitter, and  how to easily save and share searches with others to assist in your search for timely, relevant, useful information.

Let’s say you’ve heard rumor that there’s a disaster happening somewhere, but you have very limited information. How do you quickly refine your twitter searches and find useful information? How do you quickly identify relevant hashtags?

1- Run several tweetgrid word searches in a multicolumn search environment:
1a- open tweetgrid.com
1b- choose “1×10 sidescrolling” (or your preferred layout for multi-column searches)
1c- start searching using simple word search combinations that are likely to bring relevant results, such as [location disaster-type] for example: [California earthquake]

During a disaster or event, these text searches will bring many results to quickly scroll through so that you can look for more relevant info with which to refine your search. When you find new and relevant information, create a new text search in new column to refine the search. For this example we’re trying to find specific location info that will help us to focus in on a specific area that may have been hard hit in a disaster.

So the above [California earthquake] search at the time of a significant quake in CA would result in tweets with additional info for refining searches. Specific location names will appear; cities, town names would appear in the search result stream, and eventually a hashtag or two will appear in the results as well.

   1d- Set up [earthquake location-name] and [earthquake #hashtag] searches in tweetgrid columns.


Next: use the locations you’ve found in these text searches to create geosearches. If you have the latitude/longitude coordinates for a specific place, twitter can be searched by location from .1km out to 2500km. Here’s how to find a latitude/longitude:

2- Open a web app such as iTouchMap.com and enter a specific address or city, state get the latitude/longitude.

3- Copy the lat/long and insert into a geosearch template.

It’s possible to run geosearches of gelocated tweets using the following formula for an area as small as .1km out to 2500km: [geocode:INSERTLAT/LONGHERE,??km]

   3a- I’ve created a sample tweetgrid multicolumn geosearch to get you started – set up using this template:
TWEETGRID 1×5 geosearch TEMPLATE minus RTs with searches at: .1km – 10km – 50km – 100-km 200km


   3b- Run the searches to see what the results look like.


   3c- Create your own custom searches using this search code:
[-RT geocode:___,10km] (insert the lat/long where the underlined blank space is with no spaces and don’t copy the “[ ]” brackets – they are just my way of showing you what things in a searchbox will look like)

Example: [-RT geocode:45.523452,-122.676207,10km]

Please note the use of “-RT” in the search: This helps to cut down on retweets

   3d- Try adding additional search words to filter for useful info such as:
closed – evacuation – shelter – etc…

   3e- Try running the above with a “question mark search” [earthquake willits ?] or [#eqCA ?] to look for people who are asking questions that may need help (note: searching the word “help” will most likely bring lots of results of people asking for others to “please help those affected by X disaster” – this happens a lot)

It’s likely that these searches will result in more specific place names, town, regions, and you can:

4- Set up additional text and geosearches based on these results to further refine the searches.

5- Watch for hashtags – these sometimes evolve during an incident, or new ones become active during an incident. (NOTE: running hashtag searches does not eliminate the need for regular keyword searches as many do not use hashtags or in times of disaster may not take the time to locate or begin to use hashtags until later in the disaster)

   5a- Create new text searches for [#hashtag evacuation] [#hashtag shelter] [#hashtag closed] etc…
It’s helpful to share out info on the most used hashtags – watch for local officials to encourage use of specific hashtags – support their message when appropriate by sharing info on new hashtags to other tags that are in use.

6- If you’re working with a group – share the searches that you’ve created so that others can help you.

   6a- In tweetgrid, after you have your search columns set up and running, move your cursor in your web browser window to the top white “Tweetgrid!” app menu area and click on “Share: [ Full Address ]”.


   6b- The full address/link for this search can now be copied out of your web browser address window at the top of your browser. Highlight it, copy, and paste in to an instant message, chat window, tweet, email or however you wish to share it with others who can help with your searches.


twitter search step-by-step numbered summary:
1- open tweetgrid.com – choose “1×10 sidescrolling”; run wordsearches [disastertype placename] to search for a location
2- Go to iTouchMap.com and enter the place name to get a lat/long
3- Create a tweetgrid multicolumn geosearch using this template:
TWEETGRID 1×5 geosearch TEMPLATE minus RTs with searches at: .1km – 10km – 50km – 100-km 200km:
4- Refine your searches based on new location info by repeating the above searches with new location names found from first search results
5- Watch for hashtags and share; create new text searches for [#hashtag evacuation] [#hashtag shelter] [#hashtag closed] etc…
6- save and share the most useful tweetgrid searches with others (click on “Share: [ Full Address ]” then copy URL from browser address window)

NOTE: practice, practice, practice! The more you practice using these tools, the more second-nature it will become. Try different column layouts, different searches on big events (other peoples’ disasters, or sporting events, conferences, etc…)

NOTE2: Save the geosearch template somewhere handy – bookmark an empty one or save in your notes – so that you can set up and operate quickly.


There are other ways to search twitter and other social media platforms – I talk about those over here (link to longer doc?)

Now that you have gotten to the point that you can find useful info – what do you do with it? How do you sort it and get it in front of the right person to deal with it? Sometimes there is simply too much data on too many platforms to manage alone, and a team is needed.  YOU MAY NEED A VOST (Virtual Operations Support Team)


if possible set up these twitter lists now for you and your community to turn to in disasters and emergencies for helpful info:
another very helpful thing to do is to make local twitter lists for your area – I suggest making two:
1 – local EMS and disaster-related accounts twitter list – this list should include all relevant emergency management, public safety, law enforcement, fire & rescue accounts, volunteer accounts such as any Red Cross, VOAD, CERT or ham radio club or ARES accounts, also dept. of transportation, power company, cable company and any relevant businesses that may be offering useful closure info such as banks, school districts, etc…
2 – local and regional news twitter list – this list should include all local radio, newspapers, newsblogs/sites, TV stations, etc…

I’d just like to credit and thank Gahlord Dewald (@Gahlord on twitter) for all of his excellent posts on twitter geocode searching, without which this post would not have been possible. Thanks Gahlord – and here are his posts – be sure and see these, especially if you are a hootsuite or tweetdeck user!

Twitter Location Search: A complete guide

Set Up GeoCode Searches on Hootsuite

Set Up GeoCode Searches on TweetDeck

Figuring out the GeoCode



Here’s a link to a googledoc called “#SMEM and #VOST Search” that has more search info including some web apps that allow you to search other social media platforms such as facebook, blogs, and more.