Police and public turn to social media & maps in the Queensland flood crisis
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The Queensland Premier has been commended for her regular press conferences but even more regular updates came out of the Queensland Police Twitter feed & Facebook pages and everyone both in the mainstream media and social media users quickly started following the hashtag #qldfloods and retweeting @qpsmedia official information. For days, the Queensland police were simultaneously directly updating both media & the public every few minutes via social and as misinformation also spread on Twitter & Facebook they started a series of Mythbusters, which quickly dealt with the worse of the rumours.
Immediacy of information always has public appeal but in an emergency situation it can also save lives, so even people who never signed up to Facebook & Twitter started doing so (including a country cousin of mine). QPSMedia had 10,826 followers on the 18 January and a whooping 164,133 people follow (‘like’) their Facebook page. Compare this with the Courier Mail’s Facebook page which has 9,553 followers and News Limited Queensland Floods Facebook page with 18,753 and you start to see how powerful and important official information is to people in an emergency situation.
Associate Professor Dr Axel Bruns, of the Queensland University of Technology has already started examining the role of Twitter during the Queensland floods, finding to his surprise that @QPSMedia received the most retweets and @replies, coming in behind the Queensland Police were traditional media; @abcnews and @couriermail, both of who used social media to powerful effect to inform the public and had already built up large social media following prior to the floods. But all seem to agree the social media team at Queensland Police have stood head and shoulders above everyone, calm, warm, immediate and stern when they needed to be, they did as good a job as the Premier in delivering leadership, reassurance and accurate information to the people.
Over in Victoria the Victorian flood crisis is still unfolding and as I write a tweet comes in informing everyone following #vicfloods that the flood waters have reached a peak in Horsham, with @geehall1 (who’s been leading the charge on collecting & retweeting Victorian flood information) responding immediately to a twitter question of how high the peak was.
The Victorian Police have likewise seized the opportunity to use Twitter to spread official information, deal with rumours in and have been on the front foot issuing flood alerts & news, traffic information, relief centre and emergency resources details.
On the 18 January the Victorian Police had 11, 767 followers of @VictoriaPolice but unlike the Queensland Police Media, they don’t have a Facebook page. Given Facebook has more penetration than Twitter, in a crisis situation this has undoubtably been a lost opportunity.
Despite the efforts of the Victorian Police's efforts, those following the #vicfloods feed have over the past few days expressed frustration at the lack of information coming through about the floods in Victoria. Certainly the mainstream media, with the exception of the ABC have been quieter on Twitter for #vicfloods than on the #qldfloods and it's fallen to individuals to supplement the Victorian Police's efforts, with many people tweeting late into the night to help spread relief centre information and traffic updates. Another bright spot in Victoria has been the Incident Alerts system set up after the Black Saturday bushfires. The SMS'ed and Tweeted Incident Alerts have been incredibly effective at sending localised flood warnings to Victorians via both SMS and Twitter.
Both states are a stark contrast to NSW, where there has been little social media activity save for the activity of individuals, setting up Facebook pages like the Grafton, Australia Floods “2011” Community Page which has over 1,200 members and incredible stories and photos from the Grafton floods.
The NSW Police have been very subdued on social media in the past week. The @NSWPolice twitter account has 8,478 followers and their Facebook page a healthy 28,272 followers but today was the first time NSWPolice have sent a tweet since the 14 January when they sent only 1 tweet. Today’s tweet related to the arrest of a Bikie Gang Member on assault charges. On the 13 January @nswpolice sent 2 tweets over the day, both about NSW Police travelling to Queensland to help with the crisis there and on the 12 January when Northern NSW was in flood, only 3 tweets were issued across the day. Over the weekend of the 15 & 16 January, there were no tweets or Facebook updates from the NSW Police. Unlike the Queensland Police’s Facebook Page, the NSW Police site allows anyone to post on their wall and there have been complaints that it is therefore difficult to find official information on the site.
North West NSW remains on flood alert, with major flooding predicted for many communities, with some expected to be isolated by floodwaters for up to 8 weeks. Sadly, for many of the NSW communities and farmers it will be the second time their properties have been flooded in less than 6 months.
Some people I’ve been speaking to aren’t even aware that there is still flooding in NSW or that many in NSW are yet to face the worst of it. Perhaps it is not the absence of social media and lack of activity from official sources is the cause. The reality is the scale of the Queensland crisis is unprecedented and most media outlets have focused their resources and reporting on the hardest hit areas.
But one wonders if social media could better fill the gap in NSW, as it is in Victoria to spread information, alongside mainstream media, if more official and source information was being supplied.
The floods have had another side affect, with tech savvy individuals and groups setting up community sites over a few days (or hours) to help with everything from finding a pet, locating lost pets and fundraising. Again, most of these have focused on Queensland, but all are impressive feats particularly the websites QLDFloods http://qldfloods.org/ and Floodaid http://floodaid.com.au/ . QLDFloods uses Drupal and has aggregated news for the QLD Floods, warnings, evacuation notices, contact details for resources and information, damage reports, flood maps and created a bed matching service for those without accommodation or wishing to offer a bed. Floodaid http://floodaid.com.au/ a matching service where flood affected residents or business owners can ask for help and help can be offered by the community, is another example of what can be achieved in just a few days by people donating their time and skills to solve information problems.
Lost animals has also been another area of great community anguish during the floods and the Facebook Page Animals Lost & Found in the QLD Floods http://www.facebook.com/?sk=lf#!/pages/A... attests to this with over 7,400 members. And into this space more are jumping every day. GetUp recently announced to its members that it will be building a website and opening a call centre to help house people displaced by the floods.
And last but not least are the maps. Maurits van der Vlugt, a Spatial Information Strategist based in Sydney has done the leg work in compiling a list of all the maps that have sprung up during the Queensland, Victorian and NSW floods http://spatial21.blogspot.com/p/national... The list includes official sources like the Bureau of Meteorology and the Goggle Maps mash-up as well as the crowdsourced EveryMap www.everymap.com.au which combines official and community sourced information and send alerts to the community and the ABC’s QLD Flood Crisis Map, which does the same thing.
The ABC has been heavily promoting their Flood Crisis Map across ABC local & national radio stations, asking people to send in reports on the Floods and the community submissions show an evolving picture of the crisis from a local perspective. The ABC has called their site an experiment in gathering information from the community. Much of the information on the site is from official sources and has been added by ABC staff but the experiment certainly shows the power and importance of allowing people to report news themselves . Both EveryMap ( www.everymap.com.au ) & ABC’s QLD Flood Crisis Map (http://queenslandfloods.crowdmap.com/mai... ) use the Ushahidi platform, most famously used in the Haiti earthquakes.
EveryMap, launched prior to the ABC’s experiments in crowd sourced mapping, has been mapping & sending alerts for floods across five states in the past week, including Tasmania and South Australia, as well as Victoria, NSW and Queensland. The site, also invites reports from the community for non emergency news or information. Devolving the task “information collection” to the community also allows the community to choose what they share and reveals what they think is important. Where else would you find aerial photographs of the crop losses from flooding near Naracoorte in South Australia , when all main media’s attention is diverted elsewhere but on a community site like EveryMap http://www.everymap.com.au/reports/view/... . Reporters can’t be everywhere but for farmers who’ve lost crops the heartache and financial strain is the same regardless of the state you live in.
The key power of interactive maps is the visual impact and the ability to quickly dive into your geographical area and category of interest without having to wade through long lists of information.
The social media lessons and media implications of the Queensland, Victorian and NSW Floods are yet to be fully digested and nor is it appropriate that reflection takes place now with floodwaters inundating homes in Victorian towns and threatening communities in Queensland and NSW for the second time. Now is the time to get on with the job of sharing information, a time for collaboration and innovation, there will be plenty of time done the track to figure out what we learnt and what has changed in social and traditional media because of it.