Overloaded Servers

calgaryCrazy weather seems to be par for the course these days. From record-breaking rainfall in the Mid-Atlantic, to record-breaking heat in the West, to record-breaking tornadoes, things just ain’t right.

But none of them have shown the devastation that’s just now clearing up after catastrophic flooding in Alberta, Canada, especially the images coming out of Calgary, shown above.

About a week ago, the emergency management and social media worlds watched in awe as the official police Twitter account was placed into so-called, “Twitter jail,” for tweeting too much. “Twitter jail” is a term used to describe the automatic, time-limited suspension of Twitter accounts when they post too often and the service’s algorithms think they might be spamming.

If you’ve never had this happen to you, you can imagine how frustrating it would be to have potentially life-saving information, and requests for that information, and be unable to give it out. The Calgary Police were lucky to have another account they were able to fail over to, Constable Jeremy Shaw’s personal account, but that meant that the public had to find that account to begin receiving the updates again.

What would your agency do in that situation? You’ve got a disaster unfolding seemingly everywhere at once, and one of your primary means for information distribution is unusable for an indeterminate period of time. If you haven’t considered that was a possibility, now is a good time to.

So let’s say you take the advice of most of the social media experts and have backup accounts at the ready. Good for you, but how are you going to let your publics know about them? If you said, “we’ll update our website,” good on you, that’s a great idea!

But what didn’t make it into most of the “Twitter jail” stories was that the City of Calgary’s website was overwhelmed and went down from the traffic crush. So, there goes that plan.

And it’s not like this is a new type of problem. A quick Google search for “government website overwhelmed” brings up dozens of examples of the information seeking publics beating information providers (read: our websites) into submission. The example that sticks out to me is the FBI’s website crashing mere minutes after releasing the Boston Marathon bombing suspects images back in April. Not only did that delay circulation of the suspect’s images, but it also happened at the same time that the FBI released information on the ricin letter mailings (which was what I as looking for).

We continue to think–for some reason–that our government purchased servers can handle today’s information seeking public. Our plans say to post critical, life-saving information on our websites as if that’s a solution. We conveniently ignore example after example of this type of hubris exploding in our faces. And in today’s world, buying more servers simply isn’t the answer.

So, here’s my answer: get ready to set up a blog. That’s right, a third-party blog might be your solution. Companies like WordPress.com, Google’s Blogger, Squarespace, among others, are all designed to host content for millions of viewers. They buy bandwidth by the terabyte. And they’re in a race to prove that they’ve got the highest percentage of uptime. They will not crash.

So I’ve updated our response plans to include the possibility of setting up an incident-specific blog on my host of choice to ensure a steady, regular, and available means of releasing information during the incident. Our website will direct people to that blog, as will all of our social media accounts. If one of our Twitter accounts gets thrown into jail, the blog will note the new Twitter account. Just because it doesn’t end in “.gov” doesn’t mean people won’t trust it. When they’re searching for life-saving information, they’ll take it from whomever is talking. And when your website goes down, you’re no longer talking.

EDIT: I just want to clarify something before it gets out of hand, I’m not saying that the folks in Calgary did anything wrong. If that happened here in Philly, I only WISH that we’d deal with it as successfully as the response staff, the City and the police did in Calgary. Their communications protocols are the gold standard, and everything I recommend in this article is taken almost word-for-word from their playbook. My intention was simply to note that “Twitter jail” is not the story here, unlike what most other emergency management and social media blogs posted on.