First, social media is an efficient broadcast mechanism, quickly alerting people to what is happening. Within minutes of the earthquake my Twitter stream was buzzing with reports of the quake from people located up and down the East Coast. Looking at my Facebook page I also saw numerous comments about the quake shortly after it occurred.
Social media is also a more reliable communication channel. During disasters cell phone lines can easily become overwhelmed with traffic, rendering them useless. The August 23 earthquake was no exception. When I tried calling my son in New Jersey I was unable to get through to his cell phone. I was not alone. Several cell phone carriers reported disruptions in service due to heavy call volume.
With the average American spending more time on social networks, it makes sense to use these channels to communicate in emergency situations. Nielsen reported that Americans spend nearly a quarter of their online time using social networks and blogs. And the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 52% of Facebook users and 33% of Twitter users engage with the platform daily.
ASPR deserves praise for recognizing the value of social media in emergencies AND for making the development of a Facebook app a top priority. As the HHS press release notes, the first place winner will work with the government and Facebook to create an operational application within weeks of selection. I hope ASPR will expand its initiative to include other social media platforms such as Twitter too. Unfortunately these apps won't be available by the time the next disaster strikes the East Coast: the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene.