Red Cross Social Media Monitoring Center: Changing the Landscape of Disaster Relief

It turns out that a lot can be done with 140 characters or less, but can Twitter actually save lives? The American Red Cross seems to think so, as it recently partnered with Dell to launch the Red Cross Social Media Monitoring Center (SMMC) at Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The command center was modeled off of Dell’s Social Media Listening Command Center, which the computer company uses to track what consumers are saying about Dell products across multiple social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

Dell built both monitoring centers off of Salesforce.com’s Radian6 software, which runs on a Dell network so that users can track and monitor mentions of important key words and map out trends. Instead of tracking what consumers have to say about its products, the Red Cross is using the program to track and monitor specific incidents and anticipate public needs in times of crisis and during natural disasters. As soon as topic can be anointed as “trending” on Twitter, the Red Cross will be able to mobilize its forces and use the SMMC to match regions with relief aid.

The SMMC is certainly one of the first instances where social media monitoring has been used so directly, but it’s hardly the first case of nonprofit organizations leveraging the power of social media to make lasting, tangible change. The Text to Haiti campaign raised over $43 million through text message donations in the aftermath of the 2010 7.0-magnitude earthquake that affected over 3 million people. The same disaster also prompted LinkedIn to launch LinkedIn For Good, a service similar to the professional networking site – which has over 135 million users – that aims to match those in need with professionals who are actually qualified to help.

With the Help of Many

Dell CEO Mike Dell remarked, “Social media is playing a growing role in how the public and nonprofit sectors listen and respond to Americans in need.” The SMCC operates from the Red Cross Digital Operations Center, which provides the organization’s staff with visualizations of where help is needed most so that workers can be positioned most effectively on the ground.
The flexibility and instantaneous nature of social media also enables the Red Cross to update the public more often on the most effective ways to help, which is particularly important as disaster relief efforts differ greatly over time. Donation activity usually peaks immediately following a disaster when need is greatest, but over time needs change and donations can quickly be as cumbersome as they can be helpful. Blankets were one of the most needed items following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but by the time many of the blankets arrived on the ground the weather had warmed up and the blankets were no longer needed.

The SMMC was first put to test following the series of tornados that tore across the United States in March of this year, and the Red Cross was able to effectively map the areas of greatest need and station relief workers in Henryville and Marysville, Indiana.

Philanthropy of the Future

The Red Cross subsequently launched a separate digital volunteer program where volunteers will be able to respond on behalf of the Red Cross with important, sometimes critical, information about the organization’s relief efforts through Facebook and Twitter. The Red Cross’ Wendy Harman, director of social strategy, told Co.Exist that the volunteer program could even help provide support on an individual basis to disaster victims, even if the victims are trapped in their basement. The volunteer partnership also enables the organization to verify the data it collects and monitors.

The Red Cross Digital operations Center will continually run the data visualizations used to inform the SMMC staff, though the organization plans only to staff the SMMC following a major disaster. Even so, Dell has been able to translate the technology back to the private sector and recently launched a nondisaster application of the technology for Clemson University students and professors to use for academic purposes, and Dell is positioned to build additional business through the Radian6 platform.

The Red Cross Social Media Monitoring Center may be the first time social media has been leveraged for disaster relief, but it won’t be the last and it’s certainly not the first time a public organization has appropriated private sector innovation for the good of the public. Ultimately, the Red Cross will be one of many public organizations working to engage the public directly for the greater good in cost-effective, tangible and lasting ways.