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Home » Disaster Relief, History, Programs, Volunteers

Using social media to save lives during disaster

Submitted by on August 17, 2010 – One Comment

Photo credit: Yves Montoban, Haiti

Photo credit: Yves Montoban, Haiti

The American Red Cross did a study recently which found that 20% of web users surveyed would use social media or other digital means to request emergency help if the 9-1-1 system was down.

The survey also found that:

  • 69% of respondents believe that relief agencies should be monitoring the social web so they can quickly send help in times of emergency.
  • 74% said they thought emergency assistance should come within an hour of being reported via Twitter, Facebook, text message, etc.


  • I admit that I didn’t realize this reality was upon us already. But thankfully, the Red Cross saw it coming because of their experience in Haiti. Wendy Harman (@wharman), Social Media Manager for the Red Cross, said recently at SmartBlog on Social Media that Haiti was a “wake up call” because it showed them that people were turning to Twitter, Facebook and other tools like crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi to tell people they were safe, share the location and condition of loved ones or to ask for help. The challenge was that nobody had yet developed a reliable mechanism for responding.

    Here’s what Wendy and her colleagues did about it; they convened the first-ever Crisis Data Summit at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington DC late last week. Atlanta-based Salvation Army Disaster Services Director Jeff Jellets and I were invited to attend so we could listen, learn and discuss possible approaches for moving government, nonprofit and community first-responders onto the same system for collecting and managing real-time cries for help posted on social networks. We were joined by dozens of tech innovators, FEMA officials, emergency managers, social media pioneers, and disaster response pros from humanitarian aid groups and other nonprofits.

    One of the best ideas of the day came from Heather Blanchard (@poplifegirl), co-founder of CrisisCommons, who proposed a Data Operation Center – separate, but working in conjunction with county Emergency Operations Centers – to collect and manage information from the social web so emergency responders can follow up. Her efforts with CrisisCommons / Crisis Camp helped bridge the data gap for Haiti relief by bringing tech volunteers together to create tools for disaster responders like a Creole to English translation app, a Haiti mapping overlay app and more.

    Social media is not a replacement for the 9-1-1 system; that’s still the best way to request emergency assistance during times of disaster. But, when the system is overwhelmed or there’s no phone signal, the social web just might be the means of saving lives. We have to get together on a solution that works now and can grow with technology. The good news is that the American Red Cross has us moving in that direction.

    :: Here’s a link to a Washington Post story on the Red Cross Crisis Data Summit.

    :: If you want to read (a lot) more about this issue, click here for a white paper called Integrating Crisis Response with Social Media.

    :: And finally, here’s a Twitter slide show of ‘tweets’ about discussion items at the summit.

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