Faced with the massive Sandy superstorm, governments made unprecedented use of the Internet, smartphones, and social media to inform citizens. While it was a great example for the future, it also pointed up a number of problems that will need to be addressed.
Governments ranging from the federal level down to the county and local level made use of the Internet, smartphones, and social media to warn constituents and update them. Public officials put up websites, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds to pass on information, and encouraged people to check in with loved ones using social media rather than by tying up telephone lines.
Private enterprises also worked with governments to provide information, sometimes through mashups. As Google has done with other natural disasters, the company set up a Sandy "crisis map" that consolidated information from a number of government sources, including power outages, shelter locations, storm surges, and traffic information. A number of reporters also created such information consolidation sites.
In addition, Twitter offered governmental organizations free promoted Tweets. "We’ve offered Promoted Crisis Tweets to @RedCross, @FEMA,@NYCMayorsOffice, and @MDMEMA to help in keeping people in Sandy’s wake updated," the company wrote in its blog. "If you represent a local or state authority assisting with Sandy recovery and would like to participate in this pro bono program, please contact us."
In the aftermath of the storm, many people -- who might be able to get onto the Internet via their smartphones even if the phone system was out -- used Facebook to broadcast messages saying they were ok.
Other organizations set up more local sites to help track what was going on in neighborhoods, and to allow people to submit reports and requests.
That said, the Sandy response also provides some indications of things that need to be addressed before our next natural disaster.
Information verification. While government entities were providing information, some people were providing incorrect information, ranging from Photoshopped images of sharks in floodwaters to images from disaster movies. While some of these were in good fun, others were more serious. The Atlantic took it upon itself to set up a verification site for such imagery, which was spreading virally on Facebook and Twitter. (Honestly, some of the most shocking images are the real ones.)
Most notably, one man -- reportedly identified as the campaign manager for a New York Congressional candidate -- Tweeted a number of incorrect news claims. "During the storm last night, user @comfortablysmug was the source of a load of frightening but false information about conditions in New York City that spread wildly on Twitter and onto news broadcasts before ConEd, the MTA, and Wall Street sources had to take time out of the crisis situation to refute them." While some defended him on free speech grounds, the perpetrator -- who has since apologized -- may face criminal charges; as a hedge fund trader, his Tweeting that the New York Stock Exchange was under three feet of water could be seen as an attempt to manipulate the market.
Crowdsourcing led to a number of these false information sources being shot down, but sometimes it took hours. While crowdsourcing provides a useful source of information, governments are going to need to figure out a way to verify information -- and quickly shoot down what's inaccurate.
A standard way of finding information sources. While numerous public officials and governmental agencies have Facebook and Twitter feeds, it's not always easy to track them down. Governmental websites are gradually becoming more standardized, and if the Internet is going to be a source of official governmental information, it has to be easy for people to find. Twitter's blog post did consolidate all the governmental Twitter feeds in one place, by state, but people still needed to know to look there. There's been talk for years of a "Twitter 911," and an Internet version of the Emergency Broadcasting System is also being discussed.
Reliable services. Ironically, Sandy seemed to cause fewer of the widespread server outages than other weather events, such as June's massive outage caused by a thunderstorm. And sites such as Twitter, which in the past had failed under the load, appeared to stay up. However, a number of sites, such as Buzzfeed, Gawker, Gizmodo and The Huffington Post, crashed due to flooding in their data center. (The Huffington Post noted that it continued to post to social media.) Governments need to ensure that they have a variety of outlets for their announcements, in case some outlets go away.
The storm is not over, and in the coming days there are likely to be further examples of governmental entities making use of the Internet.