When natural disasters approach, cows huddle, birds take flight and humans flock to social media. At least, that’s the thinking behind a new feature analyzing social media that’s embedded in the communication software made by Everbridge Inc., and used by disaster relief agencies around the country.

The software, which works as a two-way channel between organizations and a large group of people, handles mass outreach. During a fire or a flood, governments can use the Glendale company’s web-based application to send immediate evacuation alerts to residents in affected areas and monitor their responses.

But if agencies want to learn from residents what’s happening on the ground, the latest source is the information coming through Twitter or Facebook. Take Hurricane Sandy, which thrashed the Eastern Seaboard last week; users were sending as many as 1,600 tweets a minute about the storm. Many of the messages contained updates about power outages, flooded streets and electrical fires, which is information that disaster relief organizations need so they can prepare a response.

“Social networks, whether we want to admit it or not, really are a very relevant source of information,” said Cinta Putra, chief financial officer at Everbridge. “But if you don’t filter it properly, it’s just noise.”

Everbridge’s software is designed to only give the relevant information to agencies during a natural disaster. For example, it could comb through a Twitter stream and pick out tweets that mention a brush fire. And because many posts in social networks have a user’s location embedded, officials can track the geographical progress of the fire as it spreads.

Everbridge clients include several state and local governments, such as Ventura County and the state of Connecticut, which used the software during the hurricane. The company also has clients in the health care and telecommunication industries.

Earlier versions of the software allowed an area’s residents to send photos and texts directly to the relief organizations. Putra considers this social media addition another piece in a government’s toolbox during a disaster, when efficiency and accuracy can make a big difference.

“Look at Hurricane Katrina; the natural disaster was short but the aftermath was months and months,” she said. “But if the government deploys the right assets to the right people, those kinds of man-made disasters can be avoided.”

– Tom Dotan

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.