Emergency Management in the Era of Social Media


  • David M. Hondula,

    1. Arizona State University
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    • David M. Hondula is a postdoctoral scholar in the Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University. Trained in environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, his research supports emergency preparedness efforts by examining how climate and atmospheric hazards affect human well-being. E-mail: david.hondula@asu.edu
  • Rashmi Krishnamurthy

    1. Arizona State University
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    • Rashmi Krishnamurthy is a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. Her research interests are in the areas of economic development in developing countries, comparative public administration, and collaborative decision-making. E-mail: rashmi.krishnamurthy@asu.edu

Adam S. Crowe, Leadership in the Open: A New Paradigm in Emergency Management (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2013). 313 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 9781466558236.

Over the last few decades, the adoption of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in the public sector, including personal computers, e-services, and social media, has generally been perceived as “a game changer” (Mergel and Bretschneider 2013, 390). Public agencies have adopted these technologies to varying degrees to connect with and meet the growing demands of their constituencies. The current adoption of social media reflects a new form of ICT, widely implemented as a measure to provide open, transparent, collaborative, and participatory government (Mergel 2013; Mergel and Bretschneider 2013; Picazo-Vela, Gutiérrez-Martínez, and Luna-Reyes 2012). For instance, as of 2012, U.S. federal agencies and departments had created “2,956 Facebook pages, 1,016 Twitter accounts, 695 YouTube channels, and 498 Flickr pages” (Mergel 2013).

The area of emergency management is not immune to these changes. Over the years, the way in which information is collected and shared in emergency situations has rapidly evolved with the widespread adoption of social media technologies. As a result, the capacity of public agencies and individuals to effectively coordinate response efforts, identify communities in need of help, and deliver services has evolved. In the text Leadership in the Open: A New Paradigm in Emergency Management, Adam S. Crowe explores the growth of social media technologies as key resources available to government agencies, private enterprises, and the general citizenry when disasters occur. Organizing the text around a series of well-researched case studies reflecting nine dimensions of social media, Crowe encourages capacity building for integrating social media into preparedness and response efforts.

Crowe introduces readers to the rise of social media contextualized under the Open Government movement. Crowe begins his treatise by outlining the tension between the traditional hierarchical form of public organizations and changing expectations and needs of the people. Citing various research studies and statistics, Crowe highlights two main factors that have simultaneously contributed to the widespread adoption of social media in the public sector. First, over the last few decades, there has been a growing loss of trust in public agencies. Second, people have adopted technologies such as tablets and smartphones and are increasingly sharing and connecting with each other through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

On January 21, 2009, President Barack Obama, on his first full day in office, issued the memorandum on open and transparent government. In the memo, he asked his administration to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” (White House 2009). In subsequent years, in accordance with this memorandum, the federal government has adopted various measures to incorporate the use of social media to disseminate information, solicit ideas, engage citizens in agencies’ functioning, and co-create solutions to complex challenges (Noveck 2011, 2012).

Focusing on emergency management, Crowe next highlights striking examples of the manner in which social media is changing the way people experience, react to, and recover from a range of disaster situations. Crowe identifies the London subway bombings in 2005 as an early example of social media's significant impact. In that case, citizen photos and blog reports helped public agencies determine that utility malfunctions were not the cause of explosions. As social media became more widespread in the late 2000s, it became the primary news source for many citizens; this was especially true for the Mumbai financial district terrorist attack in 2008, when news of the bombings appeared on social media outlets before formal news wires. Referencing the case of the August 2011 Virginia earthquake, Crowe notes that more than 5,000 messages per second were sent by Twitter users, and many residents of the U.S. East Coast received social media notification of the event before the earthquake's shock waves reached their location (73).

The first main theme of Crowe's book is “Changing Expectations,” under which he reviews how information exchange between formal response agencies, the private sector, and the citizenry at large has changed in the era of social media. The rise of social media on the emergency management landscape coincides with increased public demand for transparency, rapid communication, and entrepreneurial approaches. This shift has changed the role of public information officers in emergency management organizations, who are increasingly expected to maintain regular and open conversations with constituents (Hughes and Palen 2012). At the same time, members of the public are finding opportunities to play a greater role in emergency response situations as firsthand reports of impacts and needs can be transmitted to a large audience nearly instantaneously. This creates a wave of information that potentially fills knowledge voids at the beginning of emergency situations. But it also creates a need for improved mechanisms by public agencies to receive and process the incoming data in order to identify reports that are accurate and require attention (Hughes and Palen 2012).

The types of networks and collaboration that can be built “bottom up” through social media are believed to be an effective means of increasing response capacity when disasters occur (Kapucu and Van Wart 2006). However, they also contrast with the structured, hierarchical response and communication mechanisms in place in local, state, and federal agencies. Crowe provides ample and accessible background information regarding emergency management protocol that draws attention to the potential friction that exists when ad hoc, social media–driven responses to emergencies intersect with formal, structural plans and bureaucratic agencies. He boldly challenges the lack of entrepreneurial mind-set and willingness to embrace failure that he believes embodies many present-day public agencies. He promotes social media integration in emergency management as a means to foster innovation and improvement in service delivery.

The second major section of the book examines how leveraging social media in emergency management settings can improve response efforts. Crowe identifies three separate ways in which this occurs: efficiency, magnification, and collaboration. In one of the book's trademark “Leaders in the Open” case studies, contributor Sara Estes Cohen's remark that “social media make everything easier” (144) quickly encapsulates the wide-reaching benefits that Crowe suggests social media bring to emergency management. He introduces readers to social media technologies including Twitter and wikis, as well as some developed specifically for emergency scenarios, such as the geospatially oriented Ushahidi platform.

The ability to rapidly disseminate information to the public is cited as an example of both efficiency and magnification made possible through social media. Early warning systems (e.g., Hondula, Vanos, and Gosling 2013; Liu et al. 1996) are a major component of emergency preparedness efforts that encourage the public to take action to protect themselves from hazardous situations, and integration of social media into these systems is a low-cost means to enhance their capabilities (Collins and Kapucu 2008). Crowe further details how magnification through social media has also resulted in vast improvements in volunteer and donation recruitment.

With respect to collaboration, Crowe asserts that potential improvements in collaborative emergency management facilitated by social media are, as yet, relatively unrealized. Public agencies involved in emergency management are still evolving from coordination plans that were highly centralized and structured (Kapucu and Garayev 2011), but there is increasing willingness in the emergency management community to embrace collaborative opportunities that foster greater trust between agencies and citizens.

In the final section of the book, Crowe presents recommendations for emergency management agencies adopting social media or increasing its presence in their operations. In the era of increasing openness in government and public services, an evolving approach to leadership is necessary, and public officials cannot overlook the importance of social media. However, at the same time, while using social media in the public sector, Crowe advocates that public officials should strongly consider the importance of humility, creativity, and ethics when engaging in this new form of interaction with other entities and the general public. While acknowledging considerable challenges faced by public managers in coordinating efforts at different levels of government and across agencies, Crowe urges public managers to consider the hardship and challenges faced by affected communities. He emphasizes the importance of humility and advocates that public managers should adopt a humble outlook within their organizations and affected community.

Drawing from the work of John Dickson's Humilitas: A Lost Key of Life, Love, and Leadership (2011), Crowe argues that to establish a culture of trust, leaders must adopt a humble approach. Furthermore, Crowe contends that the very use of social media is based on the premise of improving connectivity between individuals. Thus, public managers should move beyond their traditional command and control approach to a more unassuming and open-minded outlook to effectively respond to affected communities during disasters. At the same time, Crowe cautions that adopting this approach does not necessarily mean adopting massive organizational change; rather, it can be accomplished by working creatively within the traditional approaches. To effectively achieve this, the leaders should think creatively and become design oriented. To illustrate his point, Crowe highlights the work of Ethan Riley, public information officer of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management, who is widely known for leveraging social media to raise public awareness and increase civic participation. Citing the example of Riley, Crowe clearly demonstrates the power of creativity in increasing community participation. Finally, connecting the dots together, Crowe in the final chapter discusses the value of ethics as a guiding principle for government leaders.

Three aspects of the text would have been improved by a broader perspective regarding social media in emergency management. First, Crowe limits discussion of the unintended consequences on the use of social media in the public sector. While he acknowledges that public agencies need to devise mechanisms to extract valuable information from noise and distraction embedded in the use of social media, he does not provide practical examples and tools to overcome this challenge. However, from the perspective of public managers and their organizations, this is a fundamental concept, as the successful use of social media hinges on the ability of the agency to extract useful information for timely and efficient emergency responses.

Second, in the book, traditional hierarchical management measures are presented in a largely negative light. Crowe cites several examples to illustrate the challenges and issues inherent in traditional hierarchical emergency management responses. While the reader is made aware of several limitations with the traditional hierarchical approaches, many emergency management successes have occurred under this structure over many decades. Increased review of the effective aspects of hierarchical management in emergency settings would have more appropriately contextualized the background for the move to an era of openness and social media. Finally, explicit review of the technical, educational, financial, and time limitations for emergency managers who may be unfamiliar with social media technology could have opened the text for discussion of the specific ways in which interested individuals can become more active members of the social media movement.

Leadership in the Open is relevant for a wide audience, and it is a timely contribution. The writing style and structure of the book make it accessible and informative for researchers, emergency management practitioners, and members of the general public who are interested in the topic. Those unfamiliar with the field will appreciate Crowe's effort to define specific terms in standout text boxes and to provide ample examples based around familiar disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The text appropriately covers a range of disaster situations, including those associated with adverse weather, disease, terrorism, economics, and politics.

Of the 3,000 scientific articles currently accessible through Google Scholar with the key phrases “emergency management” and “social media,” approximately half were published within the past two years. Researchers and practitioners alike will almost certainly continue to expand the manner in which social media is used to help improve preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. Crowe's text contributes insights and reference material that will advance this movement for the better.