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The Role of Social Media in Times of Emergency

Tweet: Christchurch, the locations of the water tankers are listed here:


On February 22, 2011 Christchurch, New Zealand, was to experience a 6.3 magnitude earthquake – devastating in its intensity. Every Cantabrian was tested. My first thought was about the people I loved and the hope that this wasn’t centered elsewhere and therefore of even more consequence. 

With power down throughout the city and people streaming from buildings, we turned to our mobile phones to communicate; to understand and to try and make sense of what was taking place around us. Mobile Service was intermittent and deep down we knew we shouldn’t be using mobiles as it is vital that communication networks be open for use by emergency personnel.  

Like many, in the minutes, hours and days following the devastating quake and the constant aftershocks, I turned to Twitter and Facebook. I was able to communicate my whereabouts and reassure myself of my family, friends and colleagues’ safety. I was able to source information other than the repetitive and dramatic re-plays mainstream media were serving up. I was just one of thousands doing the same. 

It would be these forums that quickly became a source of first hand, real-time information gleaned from people on the ground, in the midst of the chaos. This differentiated them from many mainstream media outlets that were reliant for some time on second hand information.

Researchers from the University of Western Sydney conducted a study into social media use during disasters. They found that the use of these forums can limit psychological damage caused by media sensationalising information and give people the chance to share their stories with others able to directly relate to their situation. And being there, I can vouch for the aid they provided on that day.

Social media also became a tool for communities not only during the disaster but also after, with groups forming to provide vital information – where people could access drinking water, what emergency accommodation was available and up-to-date information on roads, sewage, and electricity. The popularity and effectiveness of these groups has showcased to businesses in Christchurch and New Zealand, the power of social media and its extraordinary reach. 

The New Zealand Ministry for Civil Defense has begun introducing a Social Media Database for its Emergency Management. It’s a directory of all emergency agencies using Social Media in New Zealand and something that will enhance their response capabilities in the future.  This has been helped by Emergency 2.0 Wiki – a free global resource for using social media and new technologies in emergencies. It has tips for both the public and government agencies on how to better utilise these resources. 

On that day, and since, social media has provided a platform enabling me to reach family and friends. 

Amy Helem, Advertising Executive/Team Leader, Christchurch

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