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Boydton sisters scour social media to deliver disaster recovery info

SoVaNow.com / March 05, 2014


Nestled by a quiet street in Boydton, an international disaster response agency, Humanity Road, soaks up information coursing through the social media to help communities — both close to home and worlds away — recover from calamities.

A first of its kind, non-profit “digital charity,” Humanity Road is run by sisters Cat Graham and Chris Thompson out of the Boydton corporate headquarters. Humanity Road’s mission is to educate the public before, during and after disasters on how to survive and reunite with loved ones using the Internet.

Estimates peg the number of Internet users worldwide at around 2.4 billion people. Graham and Thompson have figured out a way to access the information posted by individuals in disaster zones to enhance the work of relief organizations.

They do this from the comfort of their homes, using a worldwide team of volunteers who monitor social media — Twitter and Facebook — 24 hours a day, seven days a week for information on emergencies. The “situation reports” they prepare from social media exchanges accomplish two goals: First, victims can access the reports to find nearby aid, food, and shelter. Second, the reports compile, in one easy-to-read document, information issued by public officials and relief organizations that are working to bring appropriate aid to victims and areas with the greatest needs.

The immediacy of the information is what gives it so much value. “When a disaster strikes, Twitter is in the moment,” said Graham. She added: “Since Twitter and mobile smart phones, the ability and means of communicating has changed for the better.” Very seldom do people involved in natural disasters overstate the nature of the problems that they face, she continued.

As soon as Graham and Thompson compile their reports, they are shared with the public and aid workers using the same social media channels — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Foursquare.

Volunteers with Humanity Road are trained to educate people about preparedness for hazards that may affect their area, Graham said. When disasters strike, aid can be quickly directed to victims, and social media is the means by which relevant information can be gathered and transmitted.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippine Islands in November 2013, Humanity Road volunteers were asked to forward critical emergency aid information to communities in need, and to help steer aid organizations on the ground to specific areas where their services could have the greatest impact. For example, Graham said, if an area had a working hospital or field hospital that was understaffed — something that could be learned by sorting through thousands of social media messages — Humanity Road volunteers would notify organizations such as Doctors Without Borders.

More recently, Humanity Road has been working with officials in West Virginia to maintain the flow of information about the chemical spill on the Elk River. By monitoring social media sites and official emergency information channels, Humanity Road volunteers were able to prepare and continuously update situation reports in the immediate aftermath of the disaster — explaining what happened, what people should do about the tainted water, which relief agencies were on the ground to help and even how to find sources of fresh water. Pet owners could read the situation reports to learn what to do if their animals drank tainted water.

Over the years, the Humanity Road team has delivered important information to hurricane victims in Haiti, and earthquake survivors in Chili and New Zealand. They have been involved in training United Nations volunteers to perform cutting-edge, digital disaster response amid civil unrest in Libya. Yet for the most part, Graham said, Humanity Road does not work in areas where war or civil conflict flares. Instead, they mostly concentrate on natural disaster response.

With the explosion of social media, Humanity Road volunteers must sift through untold amounts of digital clutter to ferret out information that’s useful for relief organizations. To accomplish this work more efficiently, Humanity Road is developing a computer program that can more quickly determine the relevance of information. The organization is also working to standardize the language used to discuss disasters when people go on Twitter.

When the two sisters are not tied up with ongoing disaster relief work, they are training government officials and individuals on disaster preparedness. Over the next two years, Graham will work with the United Nations as it prepares for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, convened to develop better ways to respond to disasters.

Thompson, who devotes her attention to domestic disaster response, was recently named Co-Chair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Virtual Social Media Working Group. The group is looking into better ways to communicate information about natural disaster using social media, and promoting the use of standardized language to avoid confusion.

This week, March 2-8, is National Severe Weather Preparedness Week. Humanity Road is working with the National Weather Service teaching students about the importance of preparing for severe weather.

“In order to engage students in awareness of severe weather events, we are sharing educational and engaging online games. ‘Stop Disasters,’ a disaster simulation game, is an example of one of these,” said Graham. “Through social media, we encourage students to learn more about preparing for tornadoes, storms, floods, and other severe weather events. From preschoolers to high school students, there is a full array of fun online material and education tools.”

Graham said Humanity Road also is sharing student educational materials that “encourage students and their families to assess risk, create action plans and model best practices.”

Magi Shepley, a teacher at Park View High School, is one of Humanity Road’s volunteers. She said encouraging young people to take part in disaster response through social media is essential: “A community can only be prepared if all of the citizens living there are ready for the unexpected; this means including students as part of the plan,” she said.

Ready.gov, NOAA and other partners have developed materials to aid teachers, parents and homeschoolers. Humanity Road is driving the social media distribution for iChallenge, the name given to the severe weather preparedness media campaign. To access the iChallenge materials, follow Humanity Road’s @i_challenge Twitter account, which uses the hashtag #iChallenge — and “like us” in Facebook as well,” added Graham.

Though the number of natural disasters has decreased over the past few years, Graham said their need for volunteers remains strong. Their motto is, “We are Driven by Need – Led By Experience – Powered By Volunteers.” With a little training, anyone can help save lives and make a difference for those impacted by disaster, Graham said. She encourages those interested to sign up on their web site at http://www.humanityroad.org/volunteer.

Founded in 2010, Humanity Road is a unique 501(c)(3) volunteer-based public charity that harnesses the power of the internet and mobile-based technologies to close the communications gap when natural disasters strike. Connect with Humanity Road on Facebook and Twitter @humanityroad or to learn more about their unique volunteer-from-home program, visit http://humanityroad.org/volunteer.

As part of National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, Humanity Road offers the following tips:

Know Your Risk: The first step to becoming weather-ready is to learn how hazardous weather may affect you where you live and work, and how that weather could impact your family. Check the weather forecast regularly, obtain a NOAA Weather Radio, and learn about Wireless Emergency Alerts. Severe weather comes in many forms, so develop communication and shelter plans various types of local hazards.

Take Action: Before storms strike, develop a family communication plan and create or purchase an emergency supplies kit.

Be an Example: Share your preparedness stories and photos with friends and family on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SevereWXstory. Enhance your story with photos, videos or just an inspiring Tweet. Let others know that you are prepared so that will encourage your community to prepare as well.


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