June 22, 2018

Five years after the flood, social media evolves as key information platform in crises

Grad student researches the role of active social influencers during 2013 disaster in southern Alberta
Calgarians watch the waters rise in the Bow River during the June 2013 flood. Social media played a critical role in keeping citizens informed during the disaster.

Calgarians watch the waters rise in the Bow River during the June 2013 flood.

Flickr photo by Wayne Stadler, licensed under Creative Commons

The potential for social media to harm society has become an almost daily topic in our news diet. However, anyone who remembers the floods in southern Alberta in 2013 will also remember how social media channels were a lifeline for many displaced, frightened and brave citizens looking for answers, information or support.

One grad student at the University of Calgary, Kimberlyn Williams, is studying just that. Williams is a master’s student in communications and media studies, and is writing her 2018 thesis on social media’s role in disaster communications during the 2013 flood.

Social media and natural disaster research

“Social media is a significant part of our lives, and for Albertans the flood was and is a significant part of their lives as well,” Williams says. “This is a growing research field and there’s a need for more.”

Williams is one example of UCalgary scholars and students examining the deeper implications of proliferating social media messages during times of natural disaster or human crisis. Other examples include the impact of Calgary's #SafeRedMile and #SafeStampede social media campaigns, and the effectiveness of Twitter during crises such as the Fort McMurray wildfire.

In her research, Williams focuses on the active influencers on social media during the flood and identifying their goals. This helps to explain how organizations like UCalgary can play a large part during a natural disaster — especially in establishing two-way communication.

“It’s important to keep the public updated, but also to pay attention to the information coming in from the public,” Williams says. “Facilitating two-way communication is becoming of greater importance than just putting out information.”

This, she adds, includes responding to questions, referring users to the right resources, or showing their human side.

People increasingly turn to social media for news and updates during disasters like the 2013 flood.

People increasingly turn to social media for news and updates during disasters like the 2013 flood.

Flickr photo by Wayne Stadler, licensed under Creative Commons

Social media for campus safety

Williams says that although there are a number of individuals who still use television, radio and newspapers for their source of news and updates during disasters, social media is quickly becoming the gold standard for quick, accurate news that saves lives during a disaster.

“During my research, I’ve realized social media is a channel people are increasingly turning to during disasters,” she says. “That isn’t unique to Alberta, Canada or North America — it’s global.”

UCalgary has experienced the importance of quick, accurate communication during disasters over the years, whether natural or not. As part of a robust crisis communications approach, UCalgary has used social media channels on several occasions such as the 2013 flood and the 2016 Fort MacMurray wildfires. In both instances the university housed hundreds of displaced families. Social media also played key roles during the Brentwood tragedy, and for several campus-specific health and safety bulletins.

UCalgary has gone one step further in communicating during emergencies in a continuous effort to improve health, safety and wellness for the entire campus community. The UC Emergency app is available for students, faculty, staff and the general public. UC Emergency Mobile delivers alerts and updates that can save lives and prevent injury. The app is one part of the university's emergency management plan and a big part of creating a safe and healthy living and learning environment for everyone on campus.

“It’s important that people are able to access critical information, and know what areas of the campus are affected. People may not even be aware of what to do during a disaster,” William’s says.

Get UC Emergency

The app, along with pushing notifications, includes other features to keep the campus community safe and secure:

  • SoloSafe lets you check in with Campus Security when you’re working or studying alone. If you don’t check out by your planned departure time, Campus Security will confirm your safety by phone or — failing that — in person.
  • HelpLine lets you connect to Campus Security and 911 at the touch of a button, and if you turn on location services, the app can pinpoint your exact location and get help on the scene quickly. Also offered through HelpLine, TipLine provides a fast, easy way to report safety or security concerns.

To download, search "UC Emergency" wherever you get apps.