April 17, 2014

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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Since the historic snow storm, “Nemo,” deposited a NOAA-certified 40 inches of snow on my hometown of Hamden, CT, I have been watching from afar to see how the town and its citizens are using a combination of digital technology, the traditional telecommunications network, and mass media to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. While I have been lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the historic storm, my senior citizen parents have been inside their house waiting for a snow plow to come for approximately five days. Since they are healthy and have food and heat, I have the luxury of writing about the use of communications technology by Hamden’s government during this weather emergency. The purpose of this post is not to pile onto an already overwhelmed town government, but to highlight fairly easily achievable improvements that Hamden’s government could make in its emergency communications that will make residents of the town safer the next time an emergency occurs.

On Friday morning, I woke up and heard the Mayor of Hamden, Scott Jackson, on CNN stating about the storm, “It’s a Disaster.” I was impressed to hear the Mayor of my approximately 60,000 person hometown with a national and international forum to talk about the weather emergency and recovery efforts. I figured this was only the first step in the process of informing town residents about what they could expect over the next few days. However, based on reviewing “The Town of Hamden, Connecticut” Facebook page, e-mails sent from the Mayor’s Office, the Mayor’s Twitter feed, and having conversations with my parents, there are three specific areas where the town could have communicated more effectively during this weather emergency. These failures of communication sell short the heroic work of the people working around the clock to plow the streets and respond to emergencies.

First, from my observations, the Town has not maximized the effectiveness of social media as a tool for communicating during the emergency. The Mayor’s Office has chosen Facebook as its primary on-line source for distributing information about the progress of the clean-up. Facebook is a closed network. Anyone without an account either has to join to read about the Town’s efforts or forgo the information entirely. Substantive information about the Town’s recovery plans has been posted every few hours, but that information is still not accessible to people, senior citizens for example, who may not be following the Town on Facebook. Notably, the messages posted by readers of the Town’s posts are almost more helpful than the Town’s messages. A number of responses detail specific challenges related to the volume of snow encountered by people who have been working in the recovery effort and encourage patience.

The Mayor’s Twitter page is also littered with missed opportunities. As of Wednesday morning, most of the recent Tweets in the Mayor’s feed are links to the updates posted on Facebook. Again, without a Facebook account, how is a Hamden resident able to learn anything much from these messages? Using Twitter in this manner defeats the entire purpose of the service – providing information quickly and succinctly. Because no account is required to view messages on Twitter, the Mayor could have been using Twitter to communicate with a larger audience than Facebook, share photos of crews removing snow, or engage in conversations with residents about specific streets that needed clearing. Instead, residents’ messages requesting specific streets be cleared were buried in the comments beneath a Town Facebook post.

Second, given that not all residents have Facebook, Twitter, or even Internet access, Hamden should have made more effective use of reverse 911 calls to residents beginning on Friday or Saturday, alerting people about what to expect over the next few days. Such calls are a critical component of a comprehensive strategy to alert people in times of emergency. Since my parents live relatively close to the Hamden-New Haven border, they have been receiving twice daily reverse 911 calls from the Mayor of New Haven. The Town of Hamden has made far fewer such calls, sometimes not even one per day. Yes, many homes are now cell phone only, but reverse 911 calls are still an effective tool, especially when deployed in combination with other alerts.

Third, the map which was provided on-line to describe the areas that have been cleared was very difficult to read. It used pinpoints on a satellite map. Therefore, street names and locations were hard to decipher. Using the basic street map from Google Maps would have provided more clarity and given people the opportunity to zoom in and out and see neighborhoods of particular interest.

The technology that the town government seemed to use most effectively was e-mail. My Dad received numerous e-mails that an unpaid resident who volunteers on a Town commission forwarded to large group of neighbors. These messages contained much, but not all, of the information that was reported on the Facebook page and that was conveyed through the reverse 911 calls. While my parents may not be on Facebook, they are active e-mailers and my Dad’s messages come to him immediately on his iPhone. E-mail is a much more effective way of distributing emergency information to a broad community than Facebook.

By late Wednesday, a town official had e-mailed out a Google Doc which allowed people to enter in the status of their street and whether it was clear or not. This is far more efficient than people posting information about their streets in Facebook comments. I am happy to see the town taking a more systematic approach to using technology to survey residents, but disappointed that it took five days from the beginning of the storm for new ideas to percolate.

Since government is certainly not the only source of information during an emergency, it is notable that Hamden’s Patch provided excellent coverage of the storm, with more than one article per day at times and You Tube videos from people in town documenting the storm. On-line journalism supplemented the information provided by the Town and since hard copy newspapers obviously could not reach Hamden residents, provided a very useful independent source of information.

Comments

  1. paul says:

    Is there anything more than anecdata to support the perception that many organizations (public and private) have scaled back their presence on the public internet as they’ve increased their presence on Facebook?

    It seems to me that this could be a problem not only for those who don’t have (or use) facebook accounts, but also for those who limit their facebook activity to people they actually know out of concerns over privacy and datamining.

  2. tobias d. robison, Princeton GS '65 says:

    Jeffrey,
    You imply that reverse-911 calls are only useful to homes with land-line phones. That may not be correct. My home town only knew my land-line phone number, but I was able to add my cell number to their database. During a power outage (Sandy), my land-line stopped working, but I got the reverse-911 calls on my cell.
    - T

  3. Jeff says:

    @Tobias, good point. I did not intend that implication. Reverse-911 calls are a useful tool regardless of whether directed to a landline or mobile phone.