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In Disaster, Social Media and Digital Tools Show Their Unique Strength


Last weekend Brandy, my college roommate, came to stay with me for a night. After dinner and drinks with some mutual friends, we found ourselves on my couch in pajamas with makeup-less faces, just like we did six years ago in our shared sorority house room. I asked her if she was ready for her second go at tackling the Boston Marathon. Brandy doesn’t just get ready for events; she gets PUMPED.
On Sunday I made a mental note to remember to text her good luck the next day. I woke up Monday morning and went about my workday. As I lazily scanned my Twitter feed, I came across something alarming. Explosion at the Boston Marathon? I didn’t miss a beat. I texted, “Are you ok?”
Even though my TV was five feet away from me, I waited for more tweets to come in with information. It’s quicker, and easier to digest a greater volume of information efficiently. Although, unfortunately, a nasty side effect is that it’s also a very effective alarmist rumor mill.
As the tragedy unfolded, the more concerned I became. The bombs went off around the four-hour mark? That’s about the time Brandy should be finishing. I checked my iPhone; the text message was shown as “read.” I took this as a sign that my friend was not harmed if she was reading text messages. I was relieved, but still on edge until I heard anything. A couple hours after I had sent my initial text message, Brandy posted an update to Facebook:

Not only was Facebook the perfect platform to quickly reassure a large number of people that she was safe, it allowed her to report on the situation, and shed a positive light on such a dark day. Brandy wasn’t the only one who used social media to let the masses know she was alive and well. I saw countless tweets raising their hand signaling, “I’m here.” Tweets were retweeted like a daisy chain, spreading information and reassuring family and friends in real-time.
This was critical, considering cell service was difficult to pick up. (Rumors that the government ordered cell service to be shut off to avoid remote detonation were bogus. It was just a case of too many people using bandwidth in one place at the same time.)
Aside from using Facebook and Twitter to send updates and alerts, there were other online services that jumped into immediate action. Google activated their Person Finder service, which helps people find each other in the aftermath of a disaster. It’s an aggregator that allows individuals and organizations to provide information that is matched up with the appropriate person search. It has been used in the past for both U.S. and international crises, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Japan's 2011 tsunami strike. This is what happened when I typed in Brandy’s name:

I also had the option of providing information about Brandy’s status for anyone else who was looking for her.
The Red Cross also had their “Safe and Well” page available to both marathon participants and loved ones. It works similarly to Google’s Person Finder by allowing you to either register yourself as “safe and well” with a brief message or search for loved ones.
During the race, anyone could check in with the official race website’s athlete tracker to keep tabs on any runner’s last check in. This tool was especially helpful after the news broke. I checked Brandy’s and learned the last place she was able to check-in was the halfway point.

As we’ve seen as recently as Hurricane Sandy, social media and digital tools show their strength in a disaster. As much criticism as these platforms receive, at the end of the day we’re still using them for the most important information in the world today. Without it, Brandy and the rest of the runners wouldn’t have been able to let all their friends and family know that she was alive and well in such a timely manner.

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