Integrating social media into an emergency response

Iratxe Gomez

Atos Expert in Public Safety

It’s widely recognized that social media is now a way for authorities to interact with the public. Police forces, local governments and other agencies turn to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to reach communities every day and in times of crisis. In emergency situations, public agencies use these channels to communicate official and verified information as quickly and widely as possible while monitoring events to inform their response.

Upward trend

In these cases, however, the challenge for authorities — and for members of the public — is how to deal with either a lack of reliable information or information overload. Perhaps that’s because until now, social media channels have not been fully integrated into authorities’ emergency responses. Yet all this is changing.

Emergency response organizations in several countries have been calling for the growing trend of social media to be harnessed more effectively as part of public sector emergency management. During recent terrorist attacks, for example, citizens quickly started posting online as soon as events started to unfold. For young people in particular, social media is today’s channel of choice. While they may not think of making a phone call, they will be ready to post a message, photo or video in an instant. What’s more, there are some emergency situations in which people may be unable to talk on a phone — in a hostage or terror incident, for example.

Systematic integration

Therefore, it is important in the digital age to more systematically integrate social media channels into emergency management workflows and systems. Any form of alert or message from a citizen via social media could trigger the process of dispatching resources, so public authorities need a robust way of detecting actionable information in real time. A Facebook/WhatsApp post that includes details of a particular gathering, or a Twitter/

Instagram message with a picture of a fire could be the official trigger for an emergency response.
Once the incident has been reported, social media could be used seamlessly with other systems to monitor the incident and gain a more dynamic, complete operational picture of what is happening than would previously have been possible. Visually, the authorities can gather vital intelligence to decide, for example, where to send resources and target help — where crowds are gathering, the position of an attacker, where injured people are located, and so on. And of course, once resources are on the ground, the authorities can send up-to-date public warnings and messages to the media.

Powerful technologies

While social media has a role to play at every stage of an emergency situation, it also brings challenges — not least of which are the vast amounts of data available in a variety of formats. What’s more, authorities must distinguish between people who are present at the site of an incident and those who are reposting messages, or even individuals who are spreading disinformation.

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) can be deployed to filter large volumes of mixed data and to process and analyze reposted messages and pictures. While some countries are farther ahead in this area than others — France is a leader in the use of social media in the public domain, for example — public authorities everywhere must integrate these channels into their systems. This is important not only to keep up with societal trends, but to harness the full power of digital technologies and data to deploy the most proactive, targeted and adaptive response possible.


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