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Twitter Alerts: London

Twitter Alerts: London

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, I’ve been a keen advocate of the use of twitter in emergencies, leading me to join in the spring of 2009. As social networks become increasingly popular it’s inevitable that their functionality evolves to make them more directly useful beyond being a communication platform.


About a month ago I met with @PocketSteve from Twitter to talk about Twitter Alerts. This is a new service provided by Twitter which has its roots in the Japanese earthquake and subsequent incidents in Fukushima, and allows time-critical and verified information to be cascaded directly to individuals from responding organisations.

Following a succesful launch in Japan and the United States, Twitter Alerts are now available in the UK. As an opt-in service, you need to activate Twitter alerts for each of the accounts that you want to receive information from, whilst messages sent using the system will (hopefully) be infrequent, here’s what I think you can expect from them…

  • Metropolitan Police – large road traffic accidents, public order incidents and terrorism – I’d say that if you’re only going to sign up for one of these accounts this should be it (although I’d encourage you to go for all of them!) as the police usually play a significant role in the response to an emergency
  • City of London Police – as above but limited to the square mile – important for those who work or travel into the city, not just those who live there
  • British Transport Police – incidents affecting the railways or London Underground (note that this will be national alert messages)
  • London Fire Brigade – updates and alerts of major fires and explosions, incidents involving chemicals, radioactive or biological substances.
  • London Ambulance Service – updates on major incidents and emergencies incidents affecting people – for the most reliable information on casualty numbers this has got to be your best source
  • Environment Agency – flooding from rain, rivers or the sea and pollution incidents
  • Mayor of London – general comment and reassurance about emergency response and recovery, this will be your place for key messages on actions you can take if you’re not directly involved

So there you have it, follow the accounts and sign up to their Twitter Alerts…and share this post so others can do the same!

Oh, and if you’re not London based, or are interested in updates from other emergency services in the UK then here’s a link to all participating accounts.

Who you gonna call (Part 2)

Who you gonna call (Part 2)

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Recently I was talking to a colleague about the value (or not) of social media as new ways of communicating and engaging the public. Social networking is the way of the world now. One of the main challenges for emergency managers is to keep arrangements grounded in reality. If that’s how people are communicating in disasters, which we know it is, then we need to embrace it to get authoritative messages out there.

Accepting that I was preeching to the converted I took to twitter to get a reaction, and my favourite was from Rob Dudgeon, Director of Emegrency Preparedness at San Francisco Office of Emergency Management:


If we need to join the conversation, we need a better understanding of how people use social media organically.

CAVEAT – Despite being interesting, I’m not sure with a sample size of 8 that my results are any more conclusive than those adverts claiming 97% of people would recommend a particular shampoo. However, the results of my recent survey are in!

How many of your Facebook friends do you think you could call on in an emergency, perhaps to provide you with a bed, or a sofa, for a couple of nights?

I don’t want to prejudice the results of my survey, but here’s my hypothesis for ‘Average Joe’

  • 140 x 10% (who he feels he could contact) = 14 Facebook friends that he can contact
  • 14 x 50% (who live locally) = 7 of which live locally who could help Joe out

How did the results comapre to my predictions? Well, first, here’s a graph of the results. It’s interesting to see the difference between the responses in terms of how many people they would be comfortable asking for help. I’m sure there’s a lot more social analysis that could have been done to look into this – is it a product of age, gender, profession, or a combination of these and other factors?

There is significantly less variation between the friends that could help that live locally, which is euqlly interesting, but I’m not sure what that indicates. facebookwygc

Now, let’s use this crowdsourced data to update our details for Average Joe:

  • He has 272 friends on Facebook (greater than the 140 Facebook average)
  • Of those, he feels like he could call on 8.4% of them – that’s 23 friends
  • Of the 23 that he could call, the data suggests 2.41% live locally (this is far less than my estimate)
  • This means that Joe has 1/6th of a friend locally that he could pre-plan with – let’s be optimistic and round that up to one whole friend!

The main observation is that the number of people that users would be comfortable in asking for help, isn’t too far away from my 10% hypothesis, but that they might not necessarily be the people who are locally able to assist. This is interesting, becuase lots of other data suggests that Facebook is highly localised into geographic communities – yet are these communities that we would/could turn to in an emergency? From this rudimentary data collection, it looks like the majority of Facebook friends that we’d turn to for help are those who live further away from us.

What does all this mean? We got a pretty graph, and perhaps we identified that social media (or Facebook at least) doesn’t spell the end of the need to develop relationships and networks locally which you can use in an emergency.

The main lesson – social media is here, and it’s here to stay, but (at the moment?) it’s an addition rather than a replacement.

Use social media, but use it wisely

Use social media, but use it wisely

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I initially wrote, and published, this post yesterday evening as the events were unfolding. This morning, news was still coming out of Boston and appearing on social media, so I’ve just made one or two running edits, in italics, to keep it current.


I don’t intend to make light of the coordinated series of explosions in Boston, but I wanted to talk about one aspect of social media, the ‘etiquette of online response’ rather than the events themselves, which the world has just witnessed.

I joined FriendsReunited in 2002. I tried joining Facebook in 2004, when it was still restricted to universities in the States. I joined MySpace in 2005 and was then a relatively early adopter of Twitter in 2009. There have been other formats that have been so fleeting I don’t even remember them. So, I’m confident in saying that I know my way round the various social mediums and in 2011 Emer Coleman (previously of Government Digital Service) referred to me as a “digital native”.

The advent of social media, and the internet more generally, has, without question, changed the way in which I consume information. I’m not alone in this, and social media offers much more than a mechanism for posting pictures of what you’ve had for dinner (although I have nothing against it’s use for that purpose).

But I do find social media interesting during a ‘Breaking News’ story. (Update: the first time I remember encountering this ‘etiquette’ issue was 2010’s Roaul Moat story.)

On twitter we have the hashtag and the humble retweet, which I think are magnificent functions. The Hastag (e.g.#SMEM) allows ‘searches’ of linked tweets, making finding related information easier. The retweet then allows for official and verified messages to be shared to a much wider audience. Whilst twitter has it’s downsides (speculation and subjectivity), I think it’s far more effective. However, on the other hand, my Facebook news feed was jam packed with either people attempting to break the news themselves, or expressing their deep emotional outpourings to affected families. I find both of these considerably less helpful than a quick RT.

It’s simply not instinctive to me to head to Facebook in the ‘initial phase’. I just don’t expect people that I went to primary school with to have the latest information (maybe I didn’t go to school with the right people?!). Obviously, it goes without saying, that this is not about Facebook as a platform, but about how people use it.

Conversely, my twitter feed was filled with some fantastic RTs of relevant news agencies, official feeds and bystander pictures and videos. I didn’t follow @Boston_Police before today, and I doubt I’ll ever really need their day to day updates, but they’re a demonstration of how twitter can be used to spread news and provide reassurance. Yes, I’ve seen one or two images which are certainly shocking, and I think a degree of sensitivity is needed for these graphic images (Update: It can be distressing to see people who have been badly injured, and perhaps the media, and all of us need a bit more self-regulation when sharing images). However, whilst they might show upsetting scenes (including this video), I personally find them preferable to the banality of sympathy that I witnessed last night on Facebook.

Surely it’s a given that we are appalled by this type of incident, why do you need to let your friends know you’re shocked ? In an emergency people who have been affected (either directly or distally) are desperately searching for useful information…yes, be sad and donate to relief funds, but don’t occupy the news feeds of people who are looking for information. This particularly important the closer the events are to home.

That said, there isn’t an instruction book, and only a degree of etiquette has evolved as the platforms have developed. What’s your view? Do you see a difference in the way people use different mediums? What works and what doesn’t? How can we make the best use of these useful communication tools?


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