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Information Sharing in an Emergency

   April 17th, 2013

Although I'm 20 miles from Boston, the explosions at the Marathon have been the dominant topic for the last couple days. Amid the tragedy, I couldn't help but notice a few things about the way information (and misinformation) flowed.

Almost immediately, the authorities were calling for everyone with photos or videos of the day - not just the explosions, but the entire race route throughout the morning - to share their media with the Police. They're even stopping people leaving the city through Logan airport to individually ask people if they captured anything. Of course the majority of people watching the race would have been taking pictures and video, and these will be tremendous help to the investigators. I'd never heard of this kind of solicitation on such a massive scale before, but I was impressed that City officials did not hesitate - shortly after it became clear the explosions were not an accident, they were asking for help from the public.

Also in short order Google created the Boston Marathon Explosions Person Finder - it's a way to both get information on someone that may have been near the scene, as well as a way for people to let others know they're safe. It's not the first time it was used, but is another helpful tool for sharing information.

Somewhat related, I also found it interesting that officials were repeatedly asking people to text and email loved ones instead of using their cell phones to make calls, to lighten the load on the over-burdened cell phone network. Even radio reporters at the scene kept getting cut off as their calls were dropped, and this technological fail led to rumors that the cell phone network had been deliberately shut down.

Which was false, but rumors were to be expected, I think. So I thought it was great that by Tuesday, Snopes already had a page up debunking some of the conspiracies and rumors - some of which are still being circulating among people I know and on the radio. Snopes is also continually adding information as they can.

Of course, all of this is in addition to the tip hotlines, press conferences, and other traditional ways to pass along information in situations like this. This is the closest I've ever been to this kind of emergency, and distracting myself with information logistics helped deal with the event itself.

And one last thing - a quote from Mr. Rogers, seen on Twitter:

@petemanning When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.

This quote is contained with PBS' page on helping kids cope with scary situations. From what I heard on the news, there was an abundance of on-the-scene helpers - sharing information is just another way to help.

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3 Responses to “Information Sharing in an Emergency”

  1. LauraB Says:

    I was really surprised that officials didn’t create a way for the public to submit their photos and videos online – Something along the lines of “Email videos and photos to…” It should have been pretty easy to set up and could draw in a huge variety of information quickly. Of course, as with all things to which the public is invited to contribute, there might be lots of irrelevant and just plain fake or purposely misleading submissions, but the same thing happens with a tips line.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @LaurieB: I wondered that too – not even telling people to tag everything a certain way. Hopefully they’ll learn from this and next time a more centralized system will be available.

    Also, I just learned that the state has started a blog for related resources.

  3. Martin Mac Says:

    Facinating. I have never seen the web used in such a situation, great to see. I was impressed that the police were asking people for their photos, but LauraB is right, it would make sense to be able to upload your photos too.
    I followed the links to the Police Website and was engrossed with the most wanted lists…scary. We don’t have that kind of thing in Europe, wanted lists on websites that is. I’m sure we will follow the lead though.