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Digital Volunteer-Supported Recovery Operations Experiment

Role of social media and digital volunteers in emergency management

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti and other recent disasters have demonstrated the role digital volunteers can play as part of the international community’s response to major disasters. In that context, social media offer the opportunity to connect with the public, improve situational awareness, and reach people quickly with alerts, warnings and preparedness messages. 

However, the ever-increasing popularity of social networking can also lead to ‘information overload’ which can prevent disaster management organizations from processing and using social media information effectively. This limitation can be overcome through collaboration with digital volunteers – tech-savvy volunteers, who are leading the way in crisis-mapping and crowdsourcing of disaster information.

Several countries have now formed Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs). These local organizations perform a variety of digital support services such as monitoring, filtering, and mapping of relevant information.

In Canada, the role of digital volunteers in supporting emergency management operations is not yet well understood. Since 2013, the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP) has supported a number of projects and activities to explore the role of social media for emergency management, including the Digital Volunteer-Supported Recovery Operations Experiment held in parallel with the annual Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Forum in Halifax, November 18 to 20, 2014.

Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE III)

The Digital Volunteer-Supported Recovery Operations Experiment is one of the activities under the Canada-U.S Enhanced Resiliency Experiment, known as CAUSE III - a technology experiment series that provides participants with opportunities to use communications technology in a simulated setting to learn how the technology performs under different circumstances. This information can then be used to confirm the functionality and value of the technology, determine what changes need to be made to improve the technology, and what procedures and training are needed to maximize its use.

CAUSE III is a collaborative effort between Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), Public Safety Canada and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, in partnership with various provincial, municipal and non-governmental organizations. CAUSE III is primarily funded through Public Safety Canada with additional funding from the CSSP, and significant in-kind contributions from all partners involved.


Experiment objectives

The Digital Volunteer-Supported Recovery Operation Experiment is designed to explore and develop social media capabilities to support the broader disaster management community in Canada. The experiment’s objectives are to:

  • describe and evaluate social media-aided cooperation between digital volunteers, disaster management officials, and humanitarian workers during the recovery phase following a major disaster;
  • validate a draft Concept of Operations, which addresses requirements associated with information-sharing and division of tasks between the various stakeholder groups involved in recovery operations; and
  • assess how social media technologies and the engagement of digital volunteers enhance the recovery capability during a multi-agency incident.


Disaster scenario

The fictitious scenario will feature a powerful tropical storm traveling up the eastern seaboard causing flooding, downed trees and power outages. The storm will make landfall in the Northeastern U.S. and Halifax, Nova Scotia, causing extensive damage to the Halifax Region, especially around the Bedford Basin area. The following day, the storm has moved out to sea and the long recovery process has started. Workers around the region are contending with a variety of issues.

This scenario is specifically designed to explore the following focus areas:

  • how agencies monitoring the storm can develop situational awareness products and send timely alerts and warnings to emergency management organizations and the public;
  • how virtual volunteers can support recovery efforts through social media tools; and
  • how social media can be used to widely distribute recovery information (e.g. locations of shelters, supplies, emergency numbers) and to communicate with the affected population (e.g. provide psychosocial support).


Expected benefits

Through the experiment, we expect to demonstrate how social media can enhance recovery operations in the following ways:

For the community

  • Sharing of timely updates (e.g., location of supplies/shelters, important phone numbers, dynamic online map of road closures, availability of essentials, mitigation tips) with the broadest audience possible;
  • Providing accurate and useful answers to questions from the community;
  • Identifying and involving volunteers from the affected communities to support recovery operations;
  • Enabling disaster survivors to locate and communicate with family members;
  • Enabling disaster survivors to participle in, and contribute virtually to recovery operations (e.g., report damage, register for volunteer work, share and amplify official messages, offer tools, supplies and expertise);
  • Providing citizens with a fast and easy way to make donation or offer skills, expertise, supplies; and
  • Gathering information and experiences posted by disaster survivors to help answer questions relevant to disaster recovery and suggest solutions to operational issues.

For recovery operations

  • Delivering critical supplies more quickly and efficiently;
  • Identifying and meeting electricity, food distribution and transportation (restoration) needs more quickly;
  • Providing recovery leaders and workers in the field with real-time and dynamic picture (online map) of progress of recovery operations;
  • Enabling officials and humanitarian workers to quickly and accurately identify new threats, safety risks or significant changes in local needs; and
  • Providing quick and accurate information to the general public on quality, size and duration of recovery operations.


From Canada

  • Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS)
  • Public Safety Canada
  • Halifax Regional Municipality
  • Province of Nova Scotia
  • City of Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA)
  • Canadian Red Cross
  • Attendees of the Canadian Red Cross Disaster Management Forum
  • CanVOST (digital volunteer group)
  • Crisis Commons (digital volunteer group)

From the United States

  • United States Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate (DHS S&T)
  • DHS S&T Virtual Social Media Working Group and partners
  • American Red Cross
  • Key stakeholders from the first responder community and the private sector
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