Thoughts from the SMEM Congress in Heidelberg

Volunteers in Halle/Saale. Photo: Moritz Kunert

People’s ability to organize themselves via social media surprised German disaster managers. Photo: Moritz Kunert

I recently had the pleasure to present at a congress on “Web 2.0 and social media in disaster- and flood-management” organized by the University of Heidelberg and a company that specializes in flood prevention systems.

The presentations (in German) can be downloaded here.

There were a lot of really interesting presentations, almost all of which focused on experiences gained during this year’s floods in Germany. Here are  a few things I took away from the congress:

  • Germany is behind the SMEM curve

German disaster responders were completely surprised by people using social media to organize themselves. Despite what we have seen in other countries over the last couple of years (US, Philippines, Australia …) they still view the affected population as a passive mass of people that is incapable of taking initiative or organizing itself. When people did organize themselves via Facebook etc, official disaster response organizations did not know how to deal with this and had no mechanisms in place to engage these ad-hoc volunteers. While many disaster responders see this positively, many others see it as a distraction to their work, that needs to be managed and channeled so that these volunteers don’t get into the way. Yes, German disaster responders still have a lot to learn …

  • Flooded Dresden 2013. Photo: Nemodoteles

    Flooded Dresden 2013. Photo: Nemodoteles

    It’s easier to find volunteers in cities than in rural areas

This really surprised me. While there are obviously more people per square kilometer in urban, than in rural areas, I always assumed that people in rural areas would be more motivated and skilled when it comes to responding to floods. After all, when you live in a city, there is a good chance that you rent and that you are not on the ground floor, whereas in rural areas it’s most likely going to be your house and your livelihood which will be damaged or destroyed. However, apparently people in rural areas are frequently too busy to help, since they have to feed the animals, milk the cows etc, whereas people in urban areas have more spare time and can help more easily. Go figure.

  • Data is not being exchanged

In international disaster response, we frequently beat ourselves up, because we are not very good at exchanging information. Attending the congress in Heidelberg made me feel a little better about that, if arguably for the wrong reasons: Germany, with it’s federal system, can currently not automatically exchange situational data from one state to the next and in many cases cannot even share digital information from one commune to the next in the same state! The systems are either not compatible or have not been designed with data exchange in mind. Of course it doesn’t work across European borders either, so people have to pick up the phone and call each other if they want to know what the situation is! That is just ridiculous, particularly considering that almost all natural disasters in Germany are floods, which tend to come down rivers that cross multiple communal, state and international borders. For me this is yet another example why we should have an open XML standard to exchange situational information. While every state could still buy the system they want, at least an open standard would make it easier to exchange data.

  • Copyright hinders crowdsourcing

Someone from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) talked about the difficulties they face when trying to make satellite images available to disaster responders. Apparently they are buying most (all?) of the imagery from third parties and provide their own analysis with these images. While the DLR can share these images together with their analysis with certain, official disaster management entities, they are not allowed to share them with the general public since that is not covered under the licensing agreements.

  • Evacuating animals from a zoo is an absolute nightmare

You really, really don’t want to have to do that. Ever.