Social Media and Situational Awareness: Suspicious Package at Philadelphia Airport

Airports around the globe had a few hours of worry today. Here in public health, we really don’t have a role in that type of situation (though initial reports did mention radiological material might have been involved), but it’s good to know what’s going on so if we get media calls or someone asks our executive, it won’t be a complete surprise and we come off looking out-of-touch. In a potentially bad situation, everything came out very well — no explosives, no one hurt, get to practice our media monitoring and we look good to the executive.

So, what did we do?

Well, I first found out about the situation on Twitter. One of the local TV stations had a couple of “developing” type tweets about something going on at the airport. I checked with some of our official internal channels and found that this might actually be something. I alerted my bosses and was advised to maintain situational awareness. I was able to manage that through a combination of official and unofficial channels. The official ones, for obvious reasons, I can’t tell you about. The unofficial ones, the ones that really helped develop the overall story for updates to our executive, I’ll describe in detail for you.

The tools. First, two screens. There’s simply too much information for just one screen. Since I don’t have two screens, I used a laptop next to my monitor. One on monitor, I had two browser windows open with internal tools.On the other monitor, Twitter and websites. I had one browser window open to a national media list on Twitter for official news releases. I had another browser window open to TweetGrid. TweetGrid is a great little website that allows you to run concurrent, live searches on Twitter. First, you pick how many searches you want to run (I’ve found that I can’t do more than the 2×3 grid), then type your search terms (or hashtags) into the boxes on your screen. Each box will then update, in real-time, with tweets that include your search terms. The key here isn’t to find one nugget of wisdom in these streaming tweets, but to pick up on things that are just happened. If a half-dozen people report on something (not RT’ing the same message), it’s something to investigate further. If one of the tweets is from a national news outlet, take it with more credence. This takes some getting used to, but really helps in picking out new topics. As new topics presented themselves, I would look on the national and local news websites that I also had open. As I found new search terms, I would swap out older, less useful search terms (at one point, I got rid of bomb threat and added Portland, due to the suspicious device found in Maine).

In the past, I advocated using a tool like Netvibes (or CrisisWire) as a dashboard for situational awareness, but today I found it too difficult to set up day of.

Using the best of social media, mass media and official, internal reports, I was able to provide real-time updates to my PIO, boss and executive on a rapidly expanding incident that had the potential to grow into something that could affect our department. I know that this reads like a paean to Twitter, but I found that it gave me unprecedented insight into what was happening around the globe and in my own backyard — even more than my official channels, at times.

So much is written about how Twitter is a great tool for broadcasting emergency messages, or for developing relationships with one’s stakeholders (both of which we here in Philadelphia have experienced); rarely, though, does anyone mention what a great tool it is for obtaining situational awareness. And that’s a mistake, because while not everyone uses Twitter to receive messages, a whole bunch of people use Twitter to send messages. Messages with information we need. Are you paying attention?


One thought on “Social Media and Situational Awareness: Suspicious Package at Philadelphia Airport

  1. I agree with you. It is fascinating to watch the tweets go by as something evolves. Great situational awareness.

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