Towards Standardized Hashtags in Disasters

Hashtag Standards for Emergencies

OCHA’s Hashtag Standards for Emergencies

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all public social media messages in a disaster would come with a flag that identifies them as relevant? OCHA is trying to pave the way for that with the brand new Hashtags Standards for Emergencies.

The document builds on experiences gained in the Philippines where a set of standard hashtags such as #RescuePH or #ReliefPH have become so commonly used, that the government recently endorsed these as “official” disaster response classifiers to help identify needs. OCHA is now trying to elevate this system to the global level in the hope that we will start to see more consistency across countries and disasters. If successful, this could help disaster responders and their supporting software systems identify needs more quickly and reduce the amount of time needed to find relevant messages in flood of updates.

OCHA proposes three different types of social media hashtags:

1, Disaster title hashtags. This type of hashtag (e.g. #Sandy) would be used by anyone to generally comment on an emergency (e.g. Hurricane Sandy) and would not be actively monitored by response agencies.

2, Public reporting hashtags. By suggesting a specific hashtag that citizens can report non-life-threatening emergency items they see (e.g. #311US for broken power lines or a damaged bridge in the USA), we would be making sensors of the entire population. The resulting data could be scanned, mined and filtered to the relevant responding agencies.

3, Emergency response hashtags. By providing a standard hashtag to trigger emergency response, based on local standards (e.g. #911US for the USA), we would enable citizens to tag content that is absolutely critical.  It would also enable responders to set up dedicated social media monitoring tools and channel the resulting information into their already existing mechanism(s). Social media would become an official information source.

(source: verity think)

I think this is great initiative and governments should pick up the ball and use this document as guidance for their own national strategies. That national authorities make this their own is essential because it can only work if the affected population knows about these hashtags in advance of the disaster and if the hashtags have been localized.

The graphic the report uses to illustrate the idea for the Ebola response is a good case in point:

Suggested hashtags for the Ebola response

Suggested hashtags for the Ebola response. Source: OCHA

The suggested hashtags seem pretty straightforward until you take into consideration that Guinea is French speaking, meaning that people there probably will use something like #EbolaBesoin instead of the English #EbolaNeed.

Of course that would still be a huge step forward, since it would increase consistency even in cases where an emergency spans multiple countries and languages. After all, a limited number of hashtags that are used in multiple languages is still much better than no system. But it also shows that this document is not so much a blueprint as a concept study. It is now up to governments and other national disaster response organizations to make it work.