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Red Cross teams up with Dell to monitor social networks in the wake of disasters

Posted by Joseph Pereira  March 26, 2012 02:00 PM

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redcrossdigital.jpgThe American Red Cross, in collaboration with Dell, recently unveiled a new Digital Operations Center that will use social media sites to help in disaster recovery.

"This is the first ever social media command center dedicated specifically to humanitarian response,” said Laura Howe, vice president of public affairs for the Red Cross.

The system, donated by Dell, scours social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, allows the Red Cross is able to pinpoint relief efforts in a suitable and relevant way. The system is based on Dell's own Social Media Listening Command Center, which they use to monitor discourse about their brand on the Internet.

The Red Cross' Digital Operations Center was quickly put to use earlier this month immediately after the tornadoes that hit the Midwest. By tracking social media the center was quickly able to pinpoint Henryville, Indiana as a town hit hard by a tornado on March 2.

“We’re not at the point where we’re telling the public you can tweet at the Red Cross and we’ll send a sandwich truck out to feed you,” Wendy Harman, the Red Cross director of social strategy, told Mashable. “But if we see twenty tweets like that, we may.”

The Red Cross claims that the Internet is currently the third most popular source of news during emergencies behind television and radio, with 18 percent of people using Facebook to get their information.

In the aftermath of almost any disaster, social media is used for more than just calling for aid, there are also people looking to assist and volunteer. For this, the Red Cross has also unveiled a new Digital Volunteer program, which would let people reply to inquiries about services available, suggest resources or simply be there for moral support. The Red Cross will train volunteers across the country to properly handle these situations and moderate the data on the software. This will be a big increase from the three paid employees who previously handled all social media throughout the country.

When an EF-4 tornado hit Harrisburg, Illinois on Feb. 29, members of the community took matters into their own hands and quickly started organizing and collaborating on Facebook, much like Monson did last June.

With most lines of communication cut, people took to their smartphones and laptops and created several Facebook pages. One page gave up-to-the minute updates of weather reports, deaths and pictures from members of the community. Another focused on collaborating volunteer efforts and needs. The Red Cross will now closely monitor forums like these in the immediate aftermath of disasters.

According to the Red Cross 80 percent of people expect emergency responders to monitor social media.

Creative Commons Image courtesy of Dell

Joseph Pereira can be reached at

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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