Is social media a viable tool for disaster relief?

“Big Uncomfortable Ideas” was the title of Melanie Irons‘ presentation at the World Conference on Disaster Management (WCDM) this week, as she tried to persuade listeners to adopt an approach to disaster response that would challenge the current offline model that many organizations still rely on.

Melanie Irons wants to see disaster response teams incorporate social media into their efforts.

In 2013, Irons started a Facebook page to help connect people affected by a series of wildfires in Tasmania. The page was titled “Tassie Fires- We Can Help,” and featured both requests for help and offers of assistance from almost 20,000 followers. Irons was a PhD student at the time, and has since completed her doctorate in psychology.

Irons’ first big uncomfortable idea is that people in leadership positions should learn to embrace their discomfort with new changes. For many industry experts, social media is a new phenomenon that is both unfamiliar and intimidating.

“Embrace it when [you] get that little grain of discomfort – listen to that,” she said.

Other ideas included giving more press and social media responsibility to lower-level employees, and being brutally honest and showing the human side of the organization. Irons said that civilians can often relate more easily to regular employees than the CEO, and feel a sense of connection when an organization acknowledges a mistake.

She also encouraged organizations to be open to failure. When asked about a new Facebook tool called “Safety Check,” Irons gave an example of an explosion in Pakistan that occurred recently.

“The message that went out did not say where the explosion was, and it also went out to people who were nowhere near the area,” she said. But “the only way we can have innovative things like these is if the screw-ups happen.”

While that particular mistake may have led to concern and confusion, Irons is confident that tools of its ilk are becoming extremely useful.

Irons described the first week after a disaster hits as the “golden window,” saying that’s when people are most engaged and aware of what’s going on. At the beginning of the Tasmanian fires, she said there was an outpouring of support from people in the area, recalling one instance where two older women showed up pushing a generator on a skateboard to help the cause.

When asked for her opinion about the Fort McMurray relief Facebook page, Irons noted that it seemed to lack an administrator, unlike the one she ran in 2013. She isn’t sure which model is more effective, though she expressed interest in researching the difference.

As an administrator, Irons could match each offer to a relevant request. The Alberta page is more of a group, and allows anyone to post without a specific person in control.

“On the Fort McMurray Facebook page, there were so many requests for needing stuff,” Irons said. “The number of requests seemed to far exceed the number of offers.”

The WCDM took place this week in Toronto.

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Jackie Atkins
Jackie Atkins
Jackie Atkins is a competitive alpine skier, student and aspiring writer who primarily contributes stories about the intersection between technology and sports to

Related Tech News

Get ITBusiness Delivered

Our experienced team of journalists brings you engaging content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives delivered directly to your inbox.