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.

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 SM4EM.org 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: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VcTW4bRXibWTjLUnT-62SihF7hj6wRYEYKRkh6fa1zs/edit )

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: http://tweetgrid.com
• 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: https://twitter.com/search-advanced


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

Icerocket – http://www.icerocket.com/
Bing Social – http://www.bing.com/social/social
Social Mention – http://socialmention.com/
Kurrently- http://www.kurrently.com/
Also would be useful to monitor LinkedIn


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 51 other followers