Top Five SMEM Lessons Learned in 2012: Capture It With a Photo

Our second lesson learned in 2012 is a big one. I think that, of all of my lessons learned, this is the one that will have the greatest reverberations in how social media is utilized in emergencies in the future. I’m trying not to overstate here but, this will change EVERYTHING.

There are now nearly 150 million people that are ready, willing and able to photograph emergencies. People. With smartphones. Everywhere. Snapping away.

Our first reaction is to resist this. Response agencies don’t want the public, and their smartphones, interfering with official activities. (And I’ll bet some of their reticence comes from scenes like this.)

The problem is that research has shown this trend isn’t new, and isn’t slowing down. Nearly half of American internet users report having posted or shared images online. And they’re being encouraged by media to report from the scene of emergencies, pictures are just one part of that. Resisting this is like turning back the tide. And I’m not one to fight against the tide of history.

So, what can we do in this new reality? Well, there are positives here.

Emergency response typically revolves around the need to size up a situation. Look at the fire and make a decision about how to attack it. Make sure there’s a shooter on scene and deploy forces to counteract. See the symptoms and begin formulating a diagnosis. ALL of these things are image-based. Sure you can describe them by voice or convey the idea via text, but is it really the same? What is it all of those grizzled chiefs in the movies say? “I need eyes on it!” We are hamstrung, as emergency responders, by a need for visual confirmation before action can be taken. (Rightfully so, too.)

Remember what we said above, though? 150 million people, with smartphones. Snapping away. We already have eyes on it. LOTS of eyes. And this isn’t like asking a member of the public what it looks like, “It’s a big ass fire!” This is real, actionable, ground-truth. And it’s free. (Which, in today’s austere climate, isn’t such a bad thing.)

The examples of how this is useful are myriad and every time something blows up, there are more of them. My favorite public health example is the story of Delta 3163, which was quarantined at Chicago Midway due to fears of monkeypox. There were stories of a doctor onboard taking pictures of the rash and forwarding it to dermatologist friends for a diagnosis. The story goes that the dermatologist friends identified it as bug bites (the final diagnosis) and the doctor on board relaxed, knowing she and her fellow passengers were safe. I don’t have any confirmation of this story, but doesn’t it sound plausible?

The real emergency that opened eyes for the power of social media images in disasters is Hurricane Sandy. We–all of us on social media–saw the storm devastate North Jersey and New York City, in real-time, in full color, in crappy Instagram filters.

Our next step is to try experimenting with how to harness this huge pile of information and separating the wheat from the chaff. What we need to do our jobs better is out there, we just need to figure out how to use it.