Wednesday 20 June 2012

Panic, panic, there's a panic going on!

It's about emergency planning and civil contingencies before you ask. I'm afraid however, this is not going to be a 'read in 5 minutes' blog post. I'm going to try, instead, to take you with me on my mind meanderings. Be patient. Grab a cup of coffee and a biscuit (just don't bring the biscuit near me). Get comfy. Because I think this is important and hopefully in a few minutes you will too.

Sorry about that. Bit shocking isn't it. The video we were shown on Tuesday was even more shocking than that but I didn't think it was fair. So I thought I'd punch you gently in the stomach rather than full in the face.

So why did you just watch a completely shell shocked geek wandering around his familiar street rendered unrecognisable by a massive for of nature muttering oh my god under his breath repeatedly?

Well, this is the future of civil contingencies I'm afraid, whether you like it or not. In fact, it could be worse in terms of civil emergency management - he could have been livestreaming this mere seconds after the first earthquake happened. Makes it a bit hard to control the messages going out, doesn't it? Renders discussions about 'gushing' and 'trickling' when describing water flowing into an underground station a little irrelevant. Cos now, Joe Public can simply live stream that the water is gushing and if they did, and you say it's trickling, you look like a complete numpty. But more to the point you destroy any trust anyone might have ever had in you to tell the truth. And lets be honest, in this new world, you'd better tell the truth when it comes to emergencies or you will look an idiot and people will call you on it. In public. In full view of a pack of journalists just waiting to make the drama llama put his little party hat on.

Lets rewind a little bit.

On Tuesday I was invited to attend a DCLG run workshop on Social Media. The attendees were cross sector/group/government but most had one thing in common - membership of a Local Resilience Forum, the creation of which is an obligation of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The workshop was, I think, a consultation exercise in actual fact, but the roundtable was preceded by some fantastic presentations from a helpfully wide breadth of presenters all coming at social media and civil contingencies from different angles. BBC news reporter, academic theoretician (who's I suspect got a few more heads I've missed), a lady from the Civil Contingencies Directorate inside DCLG - my head was sore from nodding in agreement by the end of the morning. There was a presentation I zoned out from and vehemently disagreed with mid section but someone rather more able than I called the presenter on his assertion that being yourself on social media lost you followers.

I refrained from relating personal experience.

A lot, and I do mean a lot of thought was generated from the session. About the speed of light of our communications world now. I doodled the diagram below then redid it so it was fit for human eyes:

Click for larger version
Gold command fit in here somewhere. I need to find out where. But in the roundtable I asked someone who was explaining how they'd dealt with social media in a real incident whether having to get sign off on messages to put out from gold command was an issue. She said it was.

Lets think about Christchurch and the sound of hissing gas. How quickly are you going to map, using Ushahidi all the leaking gas pipes and broken water mains on your own? How quickly are you going to ask for help from all the people wondering the streets with connections in their hands and gps enabled to tap a button on a screen when they see a fountain of water emerging from something other than a fountain?

Quick quick slow.

No use having a quick as light comms team, emergency digital engagement team, if the messages coming through are an hour too old by the time you're allowed to send them out.

Another diagram for you:

Click for larger version

Yeah not great. My first Whiteboard HD attempt - but you get the picture. Emergency planning emitting their own (out of date) messages on the left hand side and the rest of us, the unaffected by the emergency and the affected too (see Queensland flood case studies for how the affected kept on tweeting and facebooking right the way through) on the right hand side, swapping information, discussing, reacting, commentating, curating using Storify or Storyful. In the middle is the truth, the consensus between those affected and those unaffected, the real time social reporters and the media who source from them. But around the outside are the rumours and the buzz, the noise and chitter chatter.

By being on the left and only broadcasting, you do not see what is happening on the right. And if you do not see what is happening on the right, you cannot intervene when someone starts saying something really stupid, really untrue and potentially really life threatening.

You see, as emergency planners, you no longer just have to worry about the panic you yourself might accidentally instigate if you don't check all your carefully planned key messages with gold command. Someone else with no authority at all might be merrily creating panic for you and if you're in la-la-la can't hear you broadcast mode, you wont see it. Until it's too late and the effect of that panic are seen on the ground and suddenly someone pays attention.

You could prevent it. You could intervene. But to do that you have to be in the conversation.

And so we come to the final doodle. How do you get ready for the conversations a lot of us are now telling you that you're going to have to have that as a civil contingency specialist you've never had to deal with before? Well, there's two options. As I told a lady opposite me in the roundtable, you could snaffle someone like me. Just an admin, who's a bit gobby on Twitter. Got an opinion. Got a lot of skills. Valuable skills. Snaffle them. Speak to their manager first, mind, but snaffle them. Give them an opportunity to show you if they understand not only social media but the implications of how that will interact with emergency planning. If they do, consider asking for some of their time. Get bartering and get borrowing. You might never need them. But you might, and if you do and there's a gap, an empty chair where they should be sitting, you'll be kicking yourself.

So, a little chart which is aimed at policy bods and is very draft (very) but I think shows most peoples journey on Twitter:

Click for larger version
It is actually that simple. This process can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. I tell you this not to strike fear but rather to explain that we're all learning, there's actually no end to the learning, that every incident which happens will improve our understanding and remove the mystery and no one is expecting you to be an expert in Twitter. Instead, think of it as an expectation that you'll talk - just a bit quicker and a bit more immediately than you're used to. There's the potential for making mistakes by being in the conversation but I strongly believe that there are more risks in not being in the conversation.

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