there are disasters, and there are disasters

The mega-festival that is SXSWi (South by Southwest Interactive, also known as Spring Break for the Internet) has been underway for two days now, and many of us have been watching it from home through Twitter, Flickr, the occasional livestream, and related blog posts.

The big news today was the keynote interview of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by journalist Sarah Lacy, which was, by all reports and for whatever reasons, less than a complete success.

In short, the audience seemed to take a strong dislike to Lacy’s interview manner and her style of questioning. It has been called a “train wreck” and a “disaster.”

During the interview, people who were in the audience bantered, groaned, argued, and moaned — all on Twitter. Later, they blogged about it — and linked to their blog posts on Twitter.

Those are the two simple things that Twitter does well — it lets you post short bursts of text (maximum 140 characters), and it lets you hyperlink to external websites, as long as you stay within that 140-character limit. (URL-shortening services like Snipr and is.gd are popular on Twitter for this reason.)

As such, it serves as a rapid-fire hub of information from a vast variety of sources.

Perhaps even more interesting than its usefulness during unpopular keynote interviews is how well Twitter has proven its usefulness during real disasters and train wrecks.

It has been used to report on the fires in Southern California, leading to its continued adoption by emergency services across the United States.

In an interview with mobileActive.org’s Corinne Ramey, Nate Ritter recalls that during the Southern California fires,

Twitter… was especially helpful for directing people to shelters, letting them know about road closings and dispersing other logistical information.

That sounds like a technical application that some large and small nonprofits (to link to just a couple examples) might be interested in.

We were able to help mobilize people,” he said. “We would tell them what roads were closing and where the fires were at and where to go. Even if they didn’t have to evacuate people were getting information of where to send food and blankets and stuff.” He gave one example of a retirement community that was forced to evacuate and sent to a junior high school. Nate said that after he sent out a request for help via Twitter, “350 people got the message and brought blankets and food. We actually had to tell people to stop helping.

A nonprofit organization called InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster) launched an initiative in January 2007 “to help communities around the world use Web and communications technology to identify and warn others of outbreaks like Avian flu or disasters like Hurricane Katrina.”

The main hurdle to the success of using technology like Twitter and Google Maps during emergencies is the limited number of people per capita who currently use those applications.

But adoption rates across social networks in general are increasing, both in the Unites States and abroad. And nonprofits of all types and sizes are getting creative about using Twitter to serve their own unique needs.

How could a free, rapid-fire, many-to-many messaging application work for your nonprofit?

1 Thought.

  1. Pingback: facebook is out for blood « small dots

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