Heading Home After Irene: How Social Media Could Have Helped

August 30, 2011

By Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor

When Hurricane Irene came through over the weekend, the New York Thruway Authority had a problem.  Part of the Thruway, route I-87 in southern New York, was flooded somewhere between exits 15 and 17.   The road was closed for two days. 

What did the drivers know about the closed road?  Little more than that.  The Thruway website included a sentence or two noting the closing, and the Authority issued a press release.  Listeners to the Thruway “Highway Advisory” radio were alerted by an announcement that the roadway was closed, although it briefly came among various other reports of construction projects underway. 

However, nowhere did the Thruway describe what turned out to be a huge, 35-mile backup approaching the closed section of the road.  No information was available about alternative routes, and indeed drivers crowded on to back roads near I-87 trying to get from south to north or north to south only to find these jammed or blocked.  Hotels in the area were filled to capacity.

For tens of thousands of travelers, including me, the experience was a nightmare.  It cost time and productivity, wasted fuel, added to pollution and caused some frayed nerves.  A trip of a few hours in at least one case lasted two days. 

As a Fels project this summer is showing, more and more governments and agencies are turning to social media to respond to emergencies such as the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.  But a spokesman for the Thruway Authority candidly admits when it comes to using social media, “We don’t.” 

What might the Authority have done with social media to help travelers?

First, the Authority might have used more effectively tools already in place.  For instance, the Authority operates an e-mail alert system, “Trans Alert,” but e-mail subscribers only got the same information that was available on the Highway Advisory radio: “Road closed.”  E-mails could have provided useful updates about efforts to clear the road, the extent and location of delays and alterative routes. 

Virtually every car headed toward the flooded roadway carried someone with a cell phone.  The Authority might have used the simple text messaging service built into today’s cell phones to transmit up-to-the-minute data to those seeking it, and it easily could have used the Highway Advisory radio or by using the Authority’s “Dynamic Message Sign” system to let travelers know about the service. 

Text messaging could have provided information about the extent of the delay before drivers were mired in a backlog.  Knowing that they were headed into dozens of miles of 5 mph driving, many would have left the highway earlier and that would have reduced the backup. 

But the Authority could have done much more.  We know that today 35% of all adults carry smartphones capable of accessing the Internet.  Also many Americans carry laptop or tablet computers when they travel, and often these have cellular phone system access to the Internet.  Clearly, there is a huge opportunity to use these technologies to provide real-time updates to travelers.  Maps with alternative routes could have been flashed via computer or smartphone showing drivers the best ways to get to various destinations.  Real-time updates from police and others on the scene could be routed to the devices.

How about Twitter?  The social networking service has been used to communicate up-to-the-moment information during all sorts of emergencies.  The Authority could enabled a Twitter stream on its website allowing travelers themselves to share their experience and give advice.  Via Twitter pictures, maps could be provided showing logical detours.  

Throughout the problem, the Thruway offered little explanation of what it was doing to help travelers.   Had Authority officials used social media effectively, they could have explained efforts to clear the road or even what exactly the problem was.  Even for those trapped with no alternatives, this might have softened the experience.  

Why doesn’t the Authority do more with social media?  “I see it coming,” says press officer R.W. Gronemar, but today, he says, “It’s a matter of resources.”  

The Thruway Authority is not alone.  Often government leaders worry about having the manpower to engage social media, the Fels research shows.  However, it is not always necessary to add personnel or ask people to take on new work.  Establishing a social media space where users themselves can share information requires only letting people know that it exists.  Simply routing existing information to new channels can sometimes provide useful social media data.  Creative thinking and planning are always essential to an effective emergency communications plan.  Social media are today’s new communications tools.

Fels will soon be publishing a comprehensive guide detailing trends of social media in government and tips for effective use of this powerful tool. See details here.

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