The next panel at AoIR 2013 is on crisis communication, and we have a paper in this one, too... We start, however, with Leysia Palen from the fabulous Project EPIC in Boulder, who begins with a general overview. Disasters are disruptive, unpredicted events which mean that normal daily routines cannot continue; emergencies become disasters when they overtax available local resources.
One aspect of disasters is mass convergence: a slower-motion convergence of people either in local locations or in spaces immediately outside the disaster zone - including affected residents, support staff, and curious onlookers. These groups are often organised around available items of information about the disaster.
Emergency responses include formal (officials') and informal (the public's) responses - and the public are often the true first responders, as they are already on the scene in many disaster situations. These locals also have excellent local knowledge and will know where victims are likely to be located. But we often don't build that knowledge into our disaster response policies and other frameworks.
Current "all hazards" disaster frameworks in the US are built around a wildfire model, which is less that appropriate: fires are among the few emergencies we are actually able to fight, and they do depend on moving locals out of the disaster area and allowing the authorities to do their job - this is not necessarily the right model for other disaster situations, where members of the public play a much greater role in the emergency response.
The tasks which such public responders are able to perform today are changing, especially in the area of information dissemination. There is a growing information interface between official authorities and the public, especially through new media forms: interpersonal communication has become more public (e.g. through social media); ephemeral communication data has become more durable; and this serves to expand the geography of helpers.
Social media are a key driver of these changes. Social media users can design their messages to be more discoverable by the authorities; they can even develop their own platforms and tools to help with the crisis communication effort, as has been the case with developments like Ushahidi Maps, especially in the aftermath of the 2009 Haiti earthquake.
Where this self-organising activity is going to go is yet to be seen, however - but new forms of crisis activity are being prototyped and demonstrated in the process. What emerges is a socially distributed information management system for emergency management processes.