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Boydton firm uses social media to aid disaster relief

South Boston News
Chris Thompson trains military officials on the use of social media to aid with humanitarian disaster relief.
SoVaNow.com / September 13, 2017
A Boydton firm has been at the forefront of search and rescue efforts in Texas following Hurricane Harvey and now in Florida and the Caribbean in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Humanity Road, founded in 2010 by sisters Cat Graham and Chris Thompson, uses tech-savvy volunteers to mine social media — Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Zello and Snapchat — for information that can connect victims with emergency resources when disaster strikes. They are part of the Digital Humanitarian Network that performs crisis mapping.

Crisis mapping is the real-time gathering, display and analysis of data during a crisis, usually a natural disaster or social/political conflict — or as one person described it, dots on a map. They serve as a bridge between those in harm’s way and their rescuers.

Graham says communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey did not have the resources to process the volume of calls for help that poured in as the storm tore through Texas. People in Harvey’s path who had phone service were often unable to get through to emergency call centers and first responders because of downed or overloaded transmission lines.

Within hours after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, the sisters assembled a team of 50 volunteers: 37 volunteers from eight states and seven countries along with an additional 13 translators from Translators without Borders. Their mission was to identify and report to first responders the locations of those in need of aid or endangered by catastrophic flooding along coastal Texas. The area is home to more than 8.7 million people.

For 13 days the team combed through Twitter traffic — about 6.5 million tweets per day — and other social media posts to find people in Texas who were in need of help. Their searches also located others from outside of the flood zone who were looking for friends and family. Through such data mining, other volunteers prepared a search and rescue map for the US Coast Guard to use in its operations.

They also partnered with a local Hurricane Harvey volunteer rescue group that had access to 53 boats, 73 trucks, and nine dispatchers.

As a result of their efforts, Humanity Road helped facilitate more than 1,000 rescues and relayed over 500 requests for medical help.

Graham used the story of Amber and her mother to explain the role of Humanity Road in the crisis. Amber reached out to Humanity Road after hearing from her mother who was trapped inside her home in Texas as floodwaters were rising. Neither Amber nor her mother was able to make contact with local rescue workers.

Amber’s mother was on the second floor of her house with her two dogs and cat. The room where she went to escape the rising waters had a window, but no balcony. Graham determined the exact location of Amber’s mother and shared this information with members of the Coast Guard.

With the help of local police, they were able to find the woman and bring her to safety.

The team put in amazing hours and broke some new ground for search and rescue operations, says Graham. This was the first time Humanity Road worked a live search and rescue map in the United States, and the first time they provided support to the Coast Guard and the Army National Guard with a crisis map.

Shortly after their work in Texas started to wind down, Humanity Road was called in to help with search and rescue operations from Hurricane Irma. Their first task involved assembling data to assess the extent of damage suffered by the Caribbean Islands that were hit by the massive storm. On Monday, Humanity Road conducted a special data mining effort to identify medical and health situations on affected islands. The information includes the type of health care items needed, the condition of the various hospitals and ongoing evacuation efforts.

The information they receive was shared with relief workers on the ground throughout the Caribbean. It was also made available on the Humanity Road website for people trying to contact friends or family or wanting to keep up with rescue and cleanup efforts.

Just days before Harvey hit Texas, Humanity Road was in San Jose, Calif., at a multinational conference geared toward humanitarian disaster systems and disaster relief communication operations. At the conference, they discussed the significance of using emerging technologies to facilitate humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The annual exercise, called Pacific Endeavor, brings together military representatives from 20 nations in the Asian basin and the United States.

What was discussed at that conference was put to use as the Caribbean nations and the United States recover from the effects of two of the worst storms in recorded history over the Atlantic Ocean.

Graham says volunteers are still needed in the aftermath of both hurricanes. To volunteer in Florida, visit http://www.volunteerflorida.org/irma. Or to become a digital volunteer and work from home, visit http://www.volunteerflorida.org/irma/humanityroad.org.

As relief efforts continue, Graham had one parting message: For those in the disaster zones and those outside trying to connect, remember that communication — even via cell phone — is limited. Instead of calling, send text messages. They use much less bandwidth, she notes.

Once Humanity Road’s volunteers are no longer helping with search and rescue, Graham said she and her team will find the time to assess what worked and where they might improve as they ready themselves for the next large catastrophic event. When it does, the volunteers working with Humanity Road will be there to help the victims survive, sustain and ultimately reunite with family and neighbors.

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CORRECTION: To volunteer in Florida, visit http://www.volunteerflorida.org/irma. Or to become a digital volunteer and work from home, visit https://humanityroad.org


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