Social media: Critical for disaster managers

Allan B. Tabell
'Let us make use of social media’s power to reach out to both responders and victims of disasters faster than any other means might have offered. Above all, let us make use of social media to save lives!'

This is a shortened version of the keynote address delivered by DILG Director Allan B. Tabell during the workshop with Central Luzon LGUs on the use of social media in disaster information management held on February 17, 2015 at the Holy Angel University in Angeles City, Pampanga. Tabell is the chief of the Department of the Interior and Local Government Central Office Disaster Information Coordinating Center (DILG-CODIX).

When President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos declared Martial Law forty two years ago, on September 22, 1972, the announcement came through live television and radio broadcasts seen and heard in some major cities around the country. However, it took at least one day before most of the nation learned about the declaration. 

This coming February 25, the nation will mark the 29th anniversary of the People Power Revolution. The event actually started on February 22, 1986 with the defection of then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and PC-INP Chief, General Fidel V. Ramos from the Marcos dictatorship. Twenty nine years ago, still the news travelled many hours before most of the nation even heard about the defection and the beginning of the People Power Revolution. There were rumors of different kinds.

TV and radio broadcasts were very scarce at that time as government forces successfully suppressed all TV and radio stations, except for a guerilla radio station which identified itself as Radyo Bandido. For most of the broadcasts, the voice of a gentle but brave woman named June Keithley was heard. 

Social media capital

When Noynoy Aquino announced his presidential bid on September 9, 2009, there was a new phenomenon which helped spread the word. And it was not just words but pictures, even videos.

This new phenomenon, known today as the social media, actually started when Friendster was introduced in 2002. Friendster was actually one of the first social networking websites in the Internet at that time. Over the years, social networking or social media has spread literally like wildfire.  

In 2009 the global marketing company OgilvyOne published a report about online activities in the Asia Pacific region. The report said 456 million people in the Asian region participated in social media that year. This represented 31%, or just under a third, of the world’s entire online population.

The report also said that three in four (74%) of the world’s 17 trillion SMS messages originated from the Asia-Pacific region that year.”

In his report entitled “the Uncontested Rise of Social Media in Asia”, Stephen Quinn reported that “Social networking is one of the most active web-based activities in the Philippines, with Filipinos being declared as the most active users on a number of web-based social network sites such as Friendster, Facebook, and Twitter.

When the crowd post pictures of floods and landslides on Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, there better be a disaster manager monitoring the social media, getting these reports, and responding to the emergency.

The use of social networking websites has become so extensive in the Philippines that the country has been tagged as “The Social Networking Capital of the World,” and has also become part of Filipino cyberculture. Social networking is also used in the Philippines as a form of election campaign material, as well as tools to aid criminal investigation.

Today an increasing number of people get their news through social media. Our society has transmuted the words “posting” and “tweeting” into action verbs and social media is now one of the most common forms of communication. 

Since I started working as the representative of the DILG to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) in late 2011, I have seen how social media has been increasingly tapped in disaster preparedness and response.

The relevance of timely, even real-time, information coming from the public, especially the affected population should not be underestimated. When people start tweeting that heavy and continuous rainfall is happening in their locality, disaster managers must not take this for granted. When the crowd post pictures of floods and landslides on Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram, there better be a disaster manager monitoring the social media, getting these reports, and responding to the emergency.

PROJECT AGOS WORKSHOP. MovePH, Rappler's civic engagement arm, holds a capacity building workshop on the use of social media in disaster information management for LGUs in Pampanga on February 17. Photo by Raisa Serafica/Rappler

Governance and social media

The government is no longer relying entirely on the traditional media outlets. Long gone are the days when TV, radio, and newspapers were the only sources of information.

Social media is already one of the primary sources of information. And this is particularly evident during disasters and emergencies. With the rising popularity of smart phones, which have also become very inexpensive nowadays, people turn to social media to get or share public safety information or stay connected with family and friends, or even request assistance from emergency response agencies like Patrol 117. (READ: Project Agos: Pregnant woman, HIV patient rescued)

The DILG has partnered with MovePH to use Project Agos, and even the national emergency hotline 117 is now into the fray. During natural or human-induced disasters, 117 monitors the #ProjectAgos website for real-time, crowd-sourced information about people in distress and needing assistance anywhere in the country so it can immediately dispatch the nearest appropriate responders.

And not just Project Agos, 117 also monitors requests for assistance on Facebook, Twitter, and the NDRRMC mobile app Batingaw

These platforms have also turned into powerful tools for creating online communities to keep people informed and promote unanimity, especially during disaster response.

To expound this view, let me zero in on two major natural disasters that hit the Philippines in 2013 – the magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Bohol and Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in Tacloban.  

Initial information about the damage of the quake, along with a few photos of its impact, was first seen on social media.  The setting up of the Bohol Quake Assistance Facebook page is also an example of how social media is being utilized to monitor rehabilitation efforts in areas badly affected by the earthquakes. 

The Facebook page shows photos of disaster response initiatives such as the distribution of donations from local and international donors.  It even includes photos of livelihood rebuilding ideas to help victims cope up with the economic impact of the disaster.

Facebook groups are also helpful in disaster management and response. One example is the Tacloban Yolanda Update group, whose members are encouraged to post articles and photos or videos of rescue and relief efforts in Central Philippines. It has also been helpful in gathering or reporting information about missing or found people. Through this Facebook group, distribution of relief goods and funds were also organized, and activities like book drives and fun runs were promoted.  To date, the group has close to 25,000 members.

The social media platform is also widely-used by the NDRRMC. The council maintains a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account to reach the widest possible audience.  Reposts of weather updates from responsible agencies like PAGASA, copies of NDRRMC memoranda, situation reports as well as photos, videos and infographics of important reminders and announcements are posted on its social media pages.

NDRRMC also uses the social media to live blog highlights of conferences and other meetings focusing on disaster risk reduction and management, as well as other government initiatives that prepare for and monitor the aftermath of disasters like typhoons, floods, landslides, and earthquakes.

A few days before Typhoon Yolanda made landfall, PAGASA and other government and non-government agencies used Twitter and Facebook to inform and remind the public of the necessary actions to take before, during and after a typhoon.

COMMAND CENTER. Allan Tabell, chief of the Department of the Interior and Local Government Central Office Disaster Information Coordinating Center (DILG-CODIX) and Interior Undersecretary Austere Panadero meet with volunteers during the Typhoon Ruby Project Agos operation. Photo by Zak Yuson/Rappler

Collaboration

Through social media, it also becomes easier for government to connect with partners from the private sector, NGOs, and other development partners from different parts of the world in all phases of disaster management. 

This is why the DILG values its partnerships with Rappler and MovePH on Project Agos.   We would like to assure you that the DILG is more than willing to take our partnership to the next level.  Together, let us continue to find ways to improve our systems and adopt modern technology to hasten information dissemination on disasters.     

During the critical preparedness period for Typhoon Ruby last year, the social media was very active in reporting local weather conditions, flood and landslide events, especially the landslide events in Southern Leyte, Cebu and Samar. (READ: Online humanitarians respond with Project Agos) During Typhoon Amang and the papal visit in January this year, the social media has been very active in spreading reliable and near real-time information. 

If properly used, the tool can help disaster response organizations quickly attend to people in distress because the proximate locations of emergencies are also easily determined.

In some LGUs, barangay officials use Twitter by posting the flood situation in their areas of responsibility. Many images posted during or after floods inform people about what’s going on where. Others would tweet about which roads are flood-free so that motorists and commuters can easily choose which way to take.

I must say that social media has its own limitations. But in so many ways, the opportunities it has opened for disaster management have undeniably changed the lives of many.

Local DRRMOs can actually open and manage Facebook and Twitter accounts and notify its residents about it so they can follow. This is particularly helpful during heavy rains, typhoon or landslide events. Conversely, the residents can post pictures of actual conditions so that local DRRMOs can easily keep abreast of developments and can properly deploy its scant disaster response resources.

Recently, the DILG came up with Operation LISTO and a checklist of minimum early and critical preparedness actions which LGUs can easily follow and implement. 

Similarly, LGUs can tweet or post these actions on Twitter and Facebook to inform residents – actions like which barangays need to execute preventive evacuation for its vulnerable residents and where they should go. Disaster response agencies like the DSWD and the Red Cross can post information about what and when disaster relief is coming and where. 

Responsible entities like Rappler and MovePH are now leading the way to educate our people, starting with you, the local officials, DRRMOs, civic organizations and ordinary citizens on how to responsibly use social media in many ways.

Today, this important activity that you are having can easily become a milestone in the near future. What you have learned here today from Rappler and MovePH, about Project Agos and the proper ways of using the social media, can spell a  lot of difference in the future of disaster risk reduction in your respective communities. 

Vital to disaster preparedness

It is then my sincere hope that you will all take advantage of today’s activities to learn and apply social media in your daily lives. 

In conclusion, I must say that social media has its own limitations. But in so many ways, the opportunities it has opened for disaster management have undeniably changed the lives of many. 

Let us make use of social media’s power to reach out to both responders and victims of disasters faster than any other means might have offered. Above all, let us make use of social media to save lives! 

The proper and responsible application of social media and the unlimited possibilities of technology are vital to disaster preparedness and to the bright future of our country.

On behalf of the Vice Chair for Disaster Preparedness of the NDRRMC and DILG Secretary, the Honorable Mar Roxas, I would like to congratulate Rappler and MovePH, and all of you for coming together for this event. 

Mayap a gatpanapun kekongan. – Rappler.com

Project Agos is a collaborative platform that combines top-down government action with bottom-up civic engagement to help communities learn about climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Project Agos harnesses technology and social media to ensure critical information flows to those who need it before, during, and after a disaster.

Project Agos is supported by the Australian Government.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.