Year Later, Future Looks Even Brighter for American Red Cross Digital Operations Center

Admittedly, when you think of early adopters of social media technology your mind does not naturally drift to the American Red Cross. After all, the non-profit organization has been serving those in need for more than 130 years. Yet resourcefulness and innovative thinking has not only kept the American Red Cross at the forefront of disaster recovery for more than a century, it is also keeping the organization socially relevant and poised for growth well into the future.


The success of the American Red Cross Digital Operations Center (known familiarly as a digiDOC or Digital Disaster Operations Center) in Dallas, is a strong testament to the vitality of the organization, as well as Dell’s Legacy of Good program. The digiDOC celebrates an important milestone today at a special celebration hosted by TD Smyers, CEO, American Red Cross, North Texas Region and Mona Charif, Vice President of Marketing for Dell Services.

Recently I spoke with Anita Foster, Chief Communications Officer of the North Texas Region of the American Red Cross, to hear how the Digital Operations Center—powered by Dell—has made a difference to the way the organization responds to disasters, as well as day-to-day challenges.

GB: What have been some of the highlights of the past year for the Dallas center?

Foster: We actually opened the Dallas center on April 3, 2014 and, in all honesty, it was pretty harrowing! We had about a hundred special guests on hand to celebrate, but we also had a tornado outbreak at the same time. One of our special guests was Tom Bradshaw from the National Weather Service out of Fort Worth. Together we were watching the visualizations—the heat maps on the monitors—and the entire state of Texas was burning red. Before the curtain even dropped we understood the value of the digiDOC, because in the Conversation Cloud we were able to see the names of fairly rural cities that needed help right away, and we were able to send our responders to those areas first.

Since then, we’ve been able to complete some very interesting projects. For example, we were the response team for the Arkansas tornado outbreak last spring. Our DFW Digital Volunteers (digiVOLs) teamed up with the team out of Philadelphia to work together to respond to people who, in the midst of a tornado coming right at them, took the time to seek help on Twitter. Social media is fascinating that way. People look for help and go to help on social media. About 36 hours prior to these events our digiVOLs disperse preparedness information. During and after the event we use Radian6 social listening software to help respond. We never know where these storms will hit, so that preparedness training is really valuable. Dell technology allows us to put information into the hands of people who need it—whether they are tagging us or not. Thanks to our partnership with Dell we were able to respond with messages that actually help save lives. After the storm, our digiVOLs also directly message people in distress who were standing amongst the rubble of their homes, or looking for lost loved ones. It’s powerful technology that is really making a difference in people’s lives.

The next big event we did out of the Dallas digiDOC was very unusual—our primary role was to be the listening center for the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. This was in support of our St. Louis team. What we were mostly concerned about was any rioting that might occur outside of the business district. For example, if streets were shut down because of rioting, would families be able to return to their homes? Would we need to open shelters or relief centers if the rioting involved fire? By thinking it through ahead of time, we were able to look for activity that might occur within residential communities. In this respect we were listening for anything requiring an American Red Cross response and using the power of Dell technology to connect through social media with the St. Louis team, should they be needed. It’s so much faster than it used to be. Ten years ago we would have been of no use to the St. Louis team for that type of an event. It really drives home the power of the digiDOC.

GB: There isn’t a disaster every day, right? What happens during those times when you aren’t actively involved in disaster response?

Foster: Great question! In Dallas we were the test center for exactly this type of activity. Dell had furnished the Red Cross with the first command center in Washington D.C. shortly after the earthquake in Haiti. At that time we also started our digital volunteer program. The D.C. center was really dedicated to disaster relief. In Dallas we were very interested in building an American Red Cross Digital Volunteer team that is tasked with helping monitor and respond to people during what we call “Blue Sky Days.” What we’ve been able to do is identify volunteers that respond and thank people who, for example, might have given a pint of blood, or made a cash donation.

Imagine donating a pint of blood, and tweeting about it. Almost immediately you’ll get a response that says, “Thank you! You just helped save three lives today!” During Blue Sky Days we’re able to promote our CPR classes, identify folks that might need information on disaster planning, or promote all of our free apps. (We have free apps for blood donation, tornado relief, you name it. We have an app for every crisis, and we use these apps to send information before a major disaster occurs.)

We’re also able to thank our donors. That’s very important to us to acknowledge those people who really keep the American Red Cross working to save lives all over the world. We load video content and images to our social streams. You never know when people are going to need that type of content, and the digiDOC really serves a useful purpose in getting the information, quite literally, in the hands of people who need it most.

We’ve learned a lot in this past year about the power of the platform. We also use both the digiDOC and digiVOL programs for training. We have ten active digiVOL chapters across the United States and we have used the Dallas digiDOC to train more than 2000 volunteers on our social tools, how we use social monitoring software and technology in general. And our volunteers run across generations. We have Millennials, Digital Natives and retired citizens. It’s amazing how social technology spans generations. We have a broad base of very technically skilled volunteers that know how to use GIS mapping and social listening software. They teach us something new every day.

GB: Finally, what’s next for the American Red Cross and the Digital Operations Center?

Foster: For Dallas, we’re not only celebrating how much we’ve accomplished, but also how much we have yet to learn. We have a lot to learn about how we can use the technology and the tools Dell has provided to help us be even better in the coming years. We have goals to grow our social listening skills, build our digital volunteer training, and really discover what the next big things are for us.

Between D.C., Dallas and any future command centers, we’re going to be prepared to help Americans if, and when, they face some tough days. 

About the Author: Grant Byington