Monday, October 28, 2013

Social media isn't the main game in a disaster

I'd so like to leave the bushfires alone, but no, life keeps dragging it back.

It's about this piece of drivel.

Yeah, Social Media Saves the World, and people actually saving homes and fighting fires are irrelevant without Twitter - says the for-pay social media expert.

This is the like the load of derp you find blocking your driveway because someone decided to back the derp-truck up and flick the lever on the tipper.

Let me explain what you're actually doing if you have a property with bush and buildings, an out-of-control bushfire to the North-West, and a North-Westerly wind.

You're panicking and fretting. Oh, in between, you're imagining your escape route, wondering if you've cleared enough space around buildings that they won't burn (probably not), watching the skies for ember attack, looking for places where your vantage point might let you see the fire coming before it traps you, and looking for information.

That last one is really important, and frankly, it doesn't come from Twitter. Not if you're in front of a fire. The very best real-time on-the-ground information comes from radios: the scanner listening to the fire brigades, and the regular updates that were delivered by ABC Local Radio.

Twitter? It needs a machine: a computer that doesn't have enough battery for a day (the power might be cut), or a phone or tablet that ... ditto. (Oh, and since you're not in the city, the phone's working harder to see its tower, data is slower, and battery life shorter).

Oh, and purely local infrastructure - like a mobile tower or a Telstra box - is at just as much risk as the houses people are trying to protect. Try logging into social media without a connection. Compare that to a city AM radio tower a long way from danger ...

Ditto Facebook or any other social media.

Not to mention the filtering needed to extract useful real-time information out of social media, which is even harder than getting useful real-time information from a radio scanner. The Twitter “real time information” question is so difficult there's a special CSIRO “big data” projected devoted to it – and my feed and spare-attention can match that?

So here's how my personal “emergency communications” worked on the day.

  1. Family in another place: they were tasked with watching computer feeds and relating anything important. They also listened to the same radio broadcasts as I, in case I was occupied and missed something important. They phoned me at every change of situation.
  1. Radio scanner: a friend, a former fire-fighter who had already evacuated the at-risk area, listened to the fire brigade chatter, calling me if there was anything important. Since the scanner is available as a smartphone app, this didn't involve any special kit.
  1. My eyes. I was very vigilant: not just on my own property. I sought out vantage points and used them.
  1. Conversation. You remember that? I waved down passing fire-brigade 4WDs (only a fool stops a tanker) and asked questions.
  1. ABC Local radio. Because I know damn well that the car's battery can run its radio for more than a day and still start my engine.
But no: someone whose only view of the world comes from the inner city and the computer, is going to criticise the local council for insufficient Tweeting.

That's beyond silly. For a start, the local council is not even the agency responsible for disaster – that would be the Rural Fire Service, which was running half-hourly briefings at the time, and does have a Twitter account it uses. 

Also, the local council doesn't have an at-call army of Approved Social Media Experts, it's probably got a total communications staff of one. 

Also, the local council's staff was denuded because so many of them were on the fire grounds, fighting the fires – either as volunteers, or on the council's own response vehicles.

It's not just arrogant and insular to give the council a serve about emergency communications: it's ignorant.

But what makes me really hot is the same tech-press ignorance that infected the “wow look at this drone video” story.

The editors in the tech press are apparently incapable of assessing any story other than through their own myopic prism: they don't realise that there's a great big world that doesn't care about drones or Twitter, nor do they care that the world outside knows how to do things without reference to Twitter or Mark Zuckerberg.

So something as jejune, solipsistic and just plain silly as the article that started this rant – something like that gets a major-media run because the editor doesn't have the background knowledge to spike it, and is too insular to ask an expert whether it makes any sense.


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