Red Cross and Dell: Implementing a Real-Time Approach to Monitoring Disaster Relief Needs

It’s Spring 2012 and folks from Dell and Red Cross sat down together and started brainstorming. Our two organizations have long been partners, but in this session we started by asking: "What expertise does Dell have that would be useful to the Red Cross in disaster response?" We soon had our answer as we discussed Dell's Social Media Command Center, and our journey of partnership around engaging social communities during disasters began. The result of that journey culminates today as we launch the Red Cross Digital Operations Center, powered by Dell – the first social media command center devoted to humanitarian aid.

Why would Red Cross want to model Dell's social process, its social training program, and its Command Center? Because people are increasingly turning to their social networks before, during, and after emergencies. The Red Cross has been active in social communities for about 5 years, but studying how Dell has scaled its listening and social response – and built its own social media command center to listen to customers – has opened the way for the Red Cross to really give the public a seat at its disaster response operations table.

Crack. Boom. Smash. Rumble.  In our 2012 world, the moment we experience sounds like this and a disaster affects us, one of our first instincts beyond ensuring survival is to connect. We want to make sure our family and friends know we're safe, we want to report what we're seeing, we want to find more information about what's happening, we want to find others who are going through a similar experience. Turning to social tools during a crisis is a growing instinct for Americans.  In fact,  a 2011 survey conducted by the Red Cross found that almost a third of the population would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe, 80% believe emergency response organizations should regularly monitor social media sites, and nearly a third expect action to be taken on their social requests. The internet is now the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information, and 18% specifically use Facebook for this purpose.


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Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response, and it moves really fast. When the 2011 earthquake hit outside DC, people in New York saw Tweets about it before they felt the shaking themselves. Social media is officially faster than seismic waves, so those of us in the emergency management and relief sector have had to adjust our speed and make a space for the public to increase our own impact and efficiency.

During the past week, our Digital Operations Center has been activated and working to allow us to monitor the tornados and inclement weather across the Midwest. We have been able to visualize social conversations like never before – from people feeling scared and needing tips during tornado warnings, to seeing people need first aid tips for injuries after the storm, to those looking for loved ones.

In the days after any disaster, we see people use social tools to support, comfort, and inform one another. Because we know the public expects emergency managers and relief organizations like the Red Cross to listen and act on their social conversations, we've made the commitment to become a social organization ready for 21st century humanitarian action. We want to give the public a bigger seat at the disaster relief operations table so that their tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates will become part of our decision making process during emergencies.

The new Red Cross Digital Operations Center will allow us to collaborate with the public in actionable ways like never before, to have a holistic view of any given crisis situation, and get a visual snapshot of the social conversations that are easily translatable to decision makers.

About the Author: Wendy Harman