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Geoff Livingston 7 min read

The Red Cross Launches Crisis Data Response and Listening Center

Yesterday in Washington, DC, Dell and the American Red Cross announced the launch of the Digital Operations Center, a social media emergency management response center. The digital monitoring facility was donated by Dell, and is based off their critically acclaimed Social Media Listening and Command Center.

Dell CEO Michael Dell and American Red Cross CEO Gale McGovern

The American Red Cross Digital Operations Center is the first instance of a social media listening and command center in a disaster response organization. One of the immediate questions that came out of the event was will FEMA and other emergency management organizations follow the Red Cross's direction? Other questions included, how will the Red Cross be able to parse the mountain of data that occurs during a response?

During the announcement, the Red Cross disclosed it averages roughly 4000 social media mentions a day online in a non emergency scenario. Last week, the tornadoes that tore across 11 U.S. states and killed more than 30 people represented the first time that significant disaster event data was harnessed in the command center. It provided a big picture view of an entire disaster, which allowed the Red Cross to better provide emotional support to those in need. One Red Cross employee stated they counted 2000 mentions of the word tornado a minute on social media channels.

One story from last week was about an Indiana community who needed aid, but had not received a response. The Red Cross saw digital calls for aid on Twitter, and was able to contact local emergency responders. The responders were trying to get to the community, but access was blocked. The Red Cross was able to let the community know via Twitter that aid was coming, but it was temporarily delayed.

Crisis Data Full Circle

The launch of the American Red Cross command center brings to fruition a process that began 18 months ago with the nonprofit's Crisis Data Summit. That effort and the ensuing research was the first major cross sector effort to analyze crisis response via social media.

Attendees from government, social media circles like Crisis Commons and Ushahidi, Silicon Valley, and of course, the nonprofit sector met in Washington, DC to discuss ways the sector could evolve to meet digital requests for aid. Answers, thoughts, paths and a white paper were posted in a wiki (full disclosure: I worked on this effort for the Red Cross).

"We decided after the summit to get our own house in order and to try to share our process with everyone," said Wendy Harman, director of social media at the American Red Cross. "Crisis Commons' Heather Blanchard gave a keynote that suggested adding a Digital Operations Center into [emergency operation centers] so the public could have a voice in disaster operations decision making. Today is just a baby step forward in our effort to make that happen."

A panel discussed the launch the American Red Cross Digital Operation Center in the context of online crisis data during disasters. State Department and Crisis Common's Noel Dickover, O'Reilly media Blogger Alex Howard, Ushahido CEO Patrick Meier and the Red Cross's Wendy Harman answered questions from Dell's Rishi Dave.

Alex Howard, Wendy Harman and Noel Dickover
Alex Howard, Wendy Harman, and Noel Dicker

The panel noted that crowds can help operationalize the data that comes in from a crisis. Crisis Commons and the Red Cross began working together during the Alabama tornadoes last year. There were incredible amounts of data, said Noel Dickover, so much that the Red Cross decided to start pooling the data into qualified buckets.

Alex Howard lauded the Disaster Operation Center effort as being prepared in advanced, an example of having a system in place BEFORE the disaster. A lot of the panel's conversation revolved around processes, volunteers and other resources who are trained or in place beforehand.

It seemed the panel's central question was, "How do you verify data for success, and the handle it in an effective manner?" Ensuing conversation discussed best practices, including journalists' approaches towards social media verification.

What do you think of the Red Cross's new social media Digital Operations Center? More photos are available here.

*Geoff Livingston is serving as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Razoo