Disaster Response Technology and Local News
In wake of the rampant wildfires in southern California over the past week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the use of technology in keeping the public aware of the disaster’s progress. Most people know of my particular disdain for local news, mostly because of their sensationalism of mundane or outdated stories for the sake of ratings. Here’s a classic example of why I hate local news:
Almost nothing that they say on local news is something that I haven’t already read or seen on the Internet, and if it is something I haven’t already consumed on the Internet, it usually doesn’t interest me. That said, having the TV stations do nothing but 24-hour coverage of the fires didn’t help that opinion. They asked dumb questions in a repetitive fashion, replayed the same video day-old video footage like it was new and they rarely give you the information that you needed. However, the Internet had a plethora of great resources to give you the information you needed and did it faster than the TV stations.
KPBS, which is traditionally a non-profit TV station, had the best Internet coverage as far as I could tell. They set up a Twitter account and posted up-to-the-minute updates with the most important information. I’ve never really been a fan of Twitter, but this is a really good use of the technology. Twitter allows you to get updates by looking at the site, subscribing to their RSS feed, receiving IMs or text messages to your cell phone. All of these methods are free to the user and keep you in the know faster than TV news and without all the garbage associated.
KPBS also set up a Google Maps mashup with all the fire information in geographical form. It showed where all the fires were burning, where the shelters were set up for both people and animals, which roads were closed, which neighborhoods you were allowed to re-enter and a lot of other miscellaneous data. It was also updated as soon as data came in from the authorities.
The San Diego Union-Tribune set up a special fire blog with updates as well. There were also hundreds of other bloggers posting firsthand updates about the fires, shelters, etc. Local news just can’t compete with citizen journalism because they can’t scale to the sheer number of people available to report.
Facebook also helped me keep track of how my friends in the area were doing, as they updated their status and posted comments on other people’s walls. It allowed me to more efficiently find out how people were doing and keep the phone lines clear for emergency personnel to use.
So what does it all mean?
It means that people are starting to get used to information being tailored to their needs and available in multiple formats, rather than passively viewing it on TV.
It means that given the opportunity, people will organize and distribute quality information by themselves in order to help others.
It means that the few major media outlets will have less control over information flow in the future and that small armies of dedicated citizens will give people a choice when it comes to the type of information they want to receive.
This is a Good Thing™.