Notes in a Nutshell: Social Media #Policy Break-out Sessions at #SMEM11

At the NEMA annual conference in Washington, D.C. today, emergency managers from around the country participated in the Social Media 4 Emergency Management 2011 camp (hastag #SMEM11) to learn how they might integrate social media tools like Twitter and Facebook into their operational planning and response activities. Kim Stevens moderated three break-out sessions wherin particpants discussed policy challenges to using these technologies for emergency response. Some of the issues discussed include:


Who within an organization may access and use social media tools? Organizations typically fail to leverage the full power of these tools, using them for public information campaigns but not for interactive intelligence gathering. Participants emphasized the need to have an active feedback loop beween the Public Information Officer, Planning office, the Incident Commander / EOC, and Operations.


What is the government liablity for taking action based on user-generated content (if the information is incorrect)? Local authorities can absorb user-generated content, but analysis, integration with authoritative data, use, and dissemination may have legal implications. Authorities expressed concern about being sued if they take action or put out a message based on incorrect user-generated data.

What is civilian liability for contributing incorrect information? Participants noted a handful of examples of misuse.


In some instances, agencies have the competing constructs of emergency management and homeland security; needless to say cybersecurity is an important issue.


What are the ethical and best practice guidelines for staff use of social media both at work and at home (as it may impact the employer)?

What are the privacy issues if you let Emergency Management follow you on twitter? One participant described it as the “spectrum of discomfort”: Are you comfortable if they use your tweets in a crisis? Yes. Are you comfortable if they use your tweets when there’s an incident in the Starbucks? Maybe. Are you comfortable if they monitor your tweets, and perhaps share them with other agencies, on a regular basis? Maybe not.

Is there a privacy infringement if other citizens tweets about you and share your location?

Open Records:

Is a tweet submitted to a county Emergency Management agency considered a record under state open records law? One participant said that in her state it is considered a “record” and is treated just like a 911 call, which raises other legal and ethical questions about archiving, preservation and access. These tweets may be shared with multiple agencies, such as health, DOT and the utility companies. Another participant noted that in his state, this information is exempt from disclosure if used for operational and contingency planning.


Under the Digital Communications Accessibility Act of 2010, how is the government going to ensure that communication channels have accessibility features and what requirements will be imposed? Twitter and Facebook are both compliant with third party software. But, social media may provide a better way to connect, e.g., smart phones don’t require a TTY for the hearing impaired.

Representation / Digital Divide:

Who is contributing information via social media tools? One academic study indicated that the majority of contributors to Open Street Maps in certain areas is mostly men under 35. A participant working with All Humanity raised digital divide issues, while another noted that social media usage will expand over time to be more inclusive. When using user-generated content, care should be taken to ensure that potential age, gender, education, economic, geographic, and other potential biases are taken into account.

Participants also discussed data ownership, terms of service, indeminfication, and national security issues.

Other Barriers:

Participants noted that the reluctance of emergency managers to use social media stems from: (1) lack of understanding and awareness; (2) perceived threat due to the speed of the media as need to publish information within minutes rather than hours; (3) fear of interactive dialogue; (4) lack of staffing support to conduct a social media dialogue during a crisis; and (5) fear of putting out incorrect information and not being able to retract it.

Opportunities for Moving Forward:

Kim Stevens has written a nice synthesis of the day’s discussions and put together a great bibilography on social media for crisis response and the related policy issues for her blog iDisaster.

Also keep an eye out for the forthcoming white paper on this workshop from


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