Cloud for a Cause: Applying Social Media to Humanitarian Relief

A. DeCarlo
A. DeCarlo

Summary Bullets:

  • Social media can provide a wealth of information for businesses – and non-profits alike but the challenge goes beyond capturing the data.  Organizations need a way to effectively extract actionable information from what is truly Big Data.
  • Thanks to a gift from Dell of technology, funding, and teachings culled from its own experiences with social media, the American Red Cross is now ready to go through the cloud to capture critical information that can help the organization accelerate its responses to those in need.

For all the discussions around the cloud as a revolutionary force, when it comes down to the cloud it is really just a delivery channel for IT.  So whether that IT being delivered involves compute processing, storage, software applications, or data, the objective is to use the medium to promote more efficient and flexible consumption.  One resource businesses have looked to access through the cloud is data collected from social media.  Twitter feeds, blog posts, and Facebook updates can yield crucial information about things like brand influence, buying patterns, and product satisfaction that a business can then turn around to use for product development, marketing, and sales strategy.  Similarly in the very different world of humanitarian relief efforts, non-profit organizations are finding that social media can inform the way they respond to emergency situations whether they are natural or manmade.

The challenge, as in the business world, is being able to extract the right information in order to respond to the areas of greatest need quickly.  Luckily, humanitarian organizations can take some of the lessons learned in the for-profit world to make this voluminous data work for them.  The American Red Cross has become such a beneficiary. Through the technology, operational guidance, and funding from Dell, the organization has been able to open a center at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. that can monitor and assess social media following a disaster to help direct better direct relief efforts.  Using Dell’s own Social Media Listening Command Center, which monitors feeds tweets and other messages for marketing insights and customer support issues as a prototype, the new American Red Cross Digital Operations Center has already had a trial run with the tornados that struck the Midwest and the South in late February.  With Salesforce’s Radian6 cloud-based social media monitoring service providing the underlying capture and analytics to sift through volumes of data to identify trends in a very visual way via a console, American Red Cross staffers will have a new and very timely resource for information on the ground.

This information could be critical in a crisis situation. Of course, with any new application of technology how effective the Digital Operations Center will be in helping accelerate aid remains to be seen.  That efficacy will depend greatly on the ability of analytics to accurately recognize need based on what can potentially be millions of messages, and then for the Radian6 service to display that information in a visualization on the Operations Center’s console that represents that need in a manner that staffers can process quickly.  And as promising as the technology and the operating model is, as in other uses of social media, this application raises questions about security and privacy.

What do you think?  How is your organization looking at ways to use the cloud, analytics, and social media, either for profit or other purposes?  What risks do you see?  What is the potential upside?

What do you think?

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