October's New England snowmeggadon showed us how far social media has come in making collaboration across the boundaries of government and citizens easy. And it offered stark contrast between those who get it and use it, and those who don't.
Social media and the digital devices that connect us have changed the collabonomics of disaster management -- and practically demand that in dealing with disaster governments make collaboration via social media the first play they run.
We’ve been on the this path for a few years now. It’s the give-and-the-get we talk about in our book, Collaborate or Perish! (Crown, forthcoming January 2012). Governments who engage in the give-and-get hold citizens’ support. Even if responders can’t be everywhere at once with their skills and equipment, governments can still stay squarely in the headlamps of political support.
Way back on October 21, 2007 California’s southern seven counties lit up with forest fire fueled by drought and fed by the Santa Anna winds. In one of the first examples of social media changing the collabonomics of disaster management, within hours a Wikipedia user named “Plainsong” had created a page called October 2007 California Wildfires. Dozens and then hundreds of citizen reporters soon chimed in with fact, posts, and images – even long after the blaze was extinguished later in November.
That was four years ago – when Facebook had barely graduated from college. It was awesome to behold this Wikipedia page emerging almost as fast as the fires. But did it translate to improved performance? We can’t say. If you saw the posts, you were definitely more aware, whether as a homeowner or responder. But – did it move the disaster response, or simply reflect it?
We can see the difference a few years has made. Last week a freak snowstorm decimated the northeast United States. Towns like Wilton, Connecticut, buckled and left citizens starved for news and guidance. Next door, in New Canaan? Same weather, but different response. There, town managers there showed what a full embrace of all media - traditional as well as social -- could make possible.
Using a platform comprising multiple channels like telephones for “robo” calls, Facebook for a drumbeat of official updates, and Google maps to post up the locations of hundreds of downed trees and wires it had learned of, New Canaan’s Office of Emergency Management proved itself masters of the “collaboverse” .
New Canaan’s OEM wasn’t just talking “at” citizens – it was seeking out, engaging, and transforming performance over the platform. The robo calls, for example, had an interactive feature that let you interrupt if you had information to give. Citizens were encouraged to leave information in Facebook comments – OEM would pick it up from there.
And those updates made their way to the interactive maps where everyone could see where the dangers and risks were – and what responders were already on top of. They were reaping the benefit of a common operating picture built by all - and dynamically updated.
In a disaster, that's critical.Typically, everyone has pieces of the puzzle, but no one has it all. Assembling that common operating picture gives everyone a clear view to where risk is high, and work remains - or where the path is clear.
That awareness has the potential to drop right to the bottom line of improved performance - and enhanced satisfaction.
That's the new "collabonomics" of the networked world at work - the political economy of collaboration. Social media and the digital devices that connect us make every citizen a sensor, take the friction out of collaboration, and make the common operating picture fast, easy, and cheap to build.
As we detail in Collaborate or Perish!, the platform is the strategy: whether by Facebook, Twitter, Ushahidi - take your pick - where the platform is open and accessible, where it goes to where people already are collaborating, the collabonomics of disaster management shift dramatically and transform performance. With the bar raised on performance and the cost of collaboration down, now no government can afford to manage disaster without social media. It is fast becoming politically and financially ruinous to even think about going it alone.
Now none needs to.
This is our “cool collaboration of the week” – how about yours? Have you seen a great collaboration recently? Tell us about it in the comments.
Zach Tumin is Special Assistant to the Faculty Chair and Director, Harvard Kennedy School's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program. Bill Bratton is Chairman of Kroll.