The American Red Cross, borrowing an approach used successfully by Dell, launched what’s being billed as the first social media-based operations center devoted to humanitarian relief.
The Digital Operations Center, located in the Red Cross National Disaster Operations Center in Washington, D.C., expands the Red Cross’ ability to engage with the public during emergencies. The new operations center, which Dell help fund and design, is modeled after Dell’s Social Media Listening Command Center, where Dell personnel monitor what customers are saying online about Dell and try to remedy customer issues proactively.
“The use of social media during disasters has grown exponentially in recent years, and this partnership with Dell will enable us to better understand and anticipate disaster needs and help connect people with the resources they need during emergencies,” said Gail J. McGovern, president and CEO of the Red Cross, (pictured above, right, with Dell Chairman and CEO Michael Dell), at opening ceremonies today.
“Our goal is to become a social liaison for people, families and communities to support one another before, during and after disasters,” she said.
The Digital Operations Center is expected to help the Red Cross:
• Obtain additional information from sources able to report on, or from, affected areas during emergencies and thus be better able to serve those who need help;
• Identify trends and better anticipate the public’s needs; and
• Connect people with the resources they need during a disaster, such as food, water, shelter or even emotional support.
The Red Cross also announced the launch of a digital volunteer program to help the organization respond more effectively to questions and information from the public during disasters.
“Technology has changed the game in disaster response,” said Macon Phillips, White House Director of Digital Strategy, who along with Dell CEO, Michael Dell, took part in the center’s opening ceremonies.
The digital operations center captures a steady stream of Twitter, public Facebook pages and other blogging forums, and filters discussions looking for selected disaster-related topics, terms, and geographic references using Radian6, a specialized search and analytics software tool, now owned by Salesforce.com, designed to track social media data.
The center is built into an alcove in the Red Cross’s Washington Disaster Operations Center, with six large screen monitors that display visualizations of various streams of social data, capturing which disaster-related topics are trending with the greatest volume, which states are showing the greatest activity, and who the most influential bloggers are surrounding those topics.
Red Cross personnel got to put the new system through a real-life test unexpectedly this weekend, ahead of its debut, when they discovered bloggers talking about a high school that had been destroyed by tornadoes that swept through Henryville, Ind., over the weekend.
Gloria Huang, Red Cross senior social engagement specialist, said the new monitoring tools helped the Red Cross decide to dispatch assistance personnel several hours ahead of general media reports and significantly earlier than would have traditionally been the case without the system.
According to a Red Cross survey, the Internet is now the third most commonly used way for people to get emergency-related information. Nearly a fourth of the general public–and a third of the online population–consider using use social media to inform loved ones that they’re safe, or details about their whereabouts. The survey also found that social media is used during disasters to get updates, seek and give help, and connect with loved ones.
The Red Cross has been working to improve the use of social data in emergencies, working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the White House and other public and private sector organizations, prompted in part by discussions at an Emergency Social Data Summit in 2010, officials said. A white paper released after the Summit among other recommendations, identified the importance of having a network of engaged volunteers to implement new monitoring and response methods.
Red Cross officials said the digital operations center will be staffed when the Red Cross Disaster Operation Center is activated during major disasters. However, officials will monitor social media tracking tools around the tracking clock, allowing for engagement at any time. The American Red Cross responds to more than 200 disasters on an average day, from house fires to major events.
The new Red Cross center borrows generously from a model developed by Dell to monitor social media developments.
“Social media is playing a growing role in how the public and non-profit sectors listen and respond to Americans in need,” said Michael Dell during the opening ceremonies.
“Through Dell’s Social Media Command Center, we’ve been able to innovate and improve how we support and engage our customers. We’re excited to partner with the Red Cross to extend similar capabilities to their humanitarian relief efforts nationwide.”
Dell uses the command center as a systematic way to listen and respond to more people, connect with stakeholders and influencers, and to respond quickly to customers needing technical care or support.
According to Cory Edwards, senior director for social media and corporate reputation, Dell has a staff of 84 that monitor customer concerns in online forums and reach out to those expressing problems. The staff has a 98% resolution rate and turns 34% of “ranters into ravers,” he said.
While social media has become an important domain in which businesses engage with their customers and critics, it’s role during disasters is perhaps even more pronounced for organizations such as the Red Cross and other response agencies, when communications frequently break down. While social media complements existing traditional response efforts, Red Cross officials said 9-1-1 service remains the best first action to take when a person needs emergency assistance.
In support of the Digital Operations Center, the Red Cross said it is creating a network of digital volunteers from across the country who will be trained to respond online to questions from the public, distribute critical information and provide comfort and reassurance during emergencies.
Officials said the digital volunteers will “play a critical role in working to verify and curate an incredible volume of data during disasters, notifying Digital Operations Center staff of online trends and situational information that can inform disaster-response efforts,” providing those affected “with critical safety information, resources and comforting messages.”
Dell officials said the company provided the Red Cross with consulting expertise, technology solutions and funding to design and build the new Digital Operations Center and create the digital volunteer program as part of the company’s larger commitment to the Red Cross, including funding for the Red Cross Annual Disaster Giving Program.