June 23, 2009 By Eric E. Holdeman
Iran has been called the first electronic revolution; in fact it is the first social media revolution in the making. Social media has moved from being simple entertainment for kids on MySpace or Facebook to a new way of communicating and relating to the people next door and around the world.
There are some specific lessons to be learned from the Iranian experience that apply to emergency management and disasters.
Lesson One: People want to and will communicate with one another. After a disaster, people need two things to live: water for their bodies and information for their mental well-being. People want information on demand, in real time, day in and day out. When disasters strike, they crave information. They want to know first about the welfare of their families, and then what has happened, and what is being done. The old tired tactics of turning to mass media for information is being outflanked by social media.
Lesson Two: People are part of the solution, they are not the problem. Instead of wondering what people are thinking, you can ask them and they will tell you. Social media will give you better information than any survey since it is direct and from the individual. Rather than thinking you need to control people and what they are doing, you need to harness their energy and give them directions using social media as a communications tool. Instead of having to filter your message through television, radio or the dying newspapers of today, you can go right to the stakeholder with your message. By being "real," you can establish credibility and have a dialog with people in your community. Instead of people being a burden that need to be fed, housed and otherwise taken care of, you can harness their talents by telling them where needs are. You can find out how they are helping others right where they are. They can tell you what is wrong, where it is screwed up and perhaps even why.
Lesson Three: You can trust people to do the right thing. While there are many people who don't trust government, there are also governments that don't trust their citizens. People are omnipresent. Individuals become remote sensing devices. Their instruments are geo-coded, capable of voice and picture/video documentation that is supplemented with written data. These communications devices are call "cell phones." Eighty percent of the American population now carries a cell phone. With enough reports from many different sources, you can piece together a picture of what is happening and where. People are inherently honest. Their errors will be honest ones and if you provide them a forum, like a pre-established disaster wiki, they will self-correct their neighbors. If you want to achieve situational awareness -- tap into the power of the people.
Lesson Four: People will find a way to communicate -- they have the tools today to make it happen. Many emergency managers don't believe they can count on electronic communications systems during disasters. However, like in Iran and Katrina, people find a way to communicate. BlackBerrys and text messaging might have been the only thing working, but people use what they have. In Washington state, there was a severe windstorm in 2005 that knocked out electrical power to more than half the state's population. The major electrical provider reported that it had a record number of hits on its Web site as people sought information about when the power was going to be back on -- this then where there was no power!! In Iran, the ruling government is trying everything they can do to stop communications, yet the word is getting out to the world via social media. The viability of electronic communications is only going to get stronger.