The growing role of mobile technology and social media in disaster management

January 4, 2018

 

 

At the height of tension triggered by North Korea’s threat against Guam in August, the island’s residents were riveted more than ever to their mobile phones which have largely supplanted the traditional media for information updates. In recent years, mobile communication is fast proving to be the most effective and efficient means of reaching the public and disseminating information during crisis.

 

   Using mobile communication won’t be problematic for Guam, given the island’s a highly connected and progressive telecom sector. Guam had approximately 163,000 mobile phone subscribers in 2015, according to statistics from budde.com, Australia’s internet research website. Juxtaposing that tally with Guam’s 161,797 population during that year would indicate that the number of mobile phones on Guam exceeds the number of the people. Which means that every single person on island owned a mobile phone or two.

 

    Research concluded that Guam is one of the most connected jurisdictions in the United States, with a mature and competitive mobile market being served by four providers: Docomo Pacific, GTA, IT&E Wireless and iConnect. Guam has a hundred percent mobile penetration and 3G/4G mobile technologies available. Considering that Guam is a target of nuclear attack and located along the path of regular natural disasters, a well-developed mobile communication infrastructure would certainly come in handy.

 

   The Guam Homeland Security/Office of Civil Defense is seeking to maximize the utilization of mobile communication system, along with other forms of technology, to prepare the island for any man-made or natural disaster. On Oct. 17, the local government conducted a dry-run of the SMS mass text notification to test the communication process between the Joint Information Center and the telecommunication partners.

 

   “Although the communication process between emergency management and local telecommunication companies was successful, there were gaps identified with the end user not receiving the test notification instantaneously,” says Jenna Gaminde, public information officer for civil defense agency. “This was at no fault of the telecommunication companies, as they normally work with messages that are sent one-to-one instead of one-to-many. GHS/OCD met with all participating telecommunication companies to discuss the gaps and come up with viable solutions.”

Related story:

Nuke strike may or may not happen but civil defense is not taking chances

 

  In partnership with the telecommunication companies, GHS/OCD is looking into other avenues such as a cell broadcast that works on a “one-to-many’ basis; a wireless emergency alerts system, which uses cell-broadcast technology, as well as mobile apps. “These viable solutions are costly from the GHS/OCD side as well as the telecommunication side, but GHS/OCD recognizes the need to work towards improving the mass communication capabilities,” Gaminde says.

 

    Ownership of mobile devices, of course, comes with access to and utilization of social media, which, in times of crisis, will serve a purpose far more important than displaying selfies, sharing cat-and-dog videos and liking friends’ holiday food spreads. According to a Pew Research Center study, Facebook is the obvious news powerhouse among social media sites. When disaster strikes, it has become second nature for people to look to Facebook and other social media sites for their initial source of information, hence its strong and growing influence on emergency management.

 

 Guam had approximately 163,000 mobile phone subscribers in 2015, according to statistics from budde.com, Australia’s internet research website. Juxtaposing that tally with Guam’s 161,797 population during that year would indicate that the number of mobile phones on Guam exceeds the number of the people. Which means that every single person on island owned a mobile phone or two.

     In mid-Decemeber, the GHS/OCD reissued its public advisory on how to survive a nuclear strike and uploaded video clip guidelines on its Facebook page.    

 

  “Social media has made it possible to spread information instantaneously and has aided emergency management directly by broadcasting important safety information, correcting misinformation and helping to build situational awareness,” Gaminde says. “During disasters, there is a possibility of telephone capabilities being down. Social media can provide connections when there are no other means. It is a tool used by emergency management for its speed and effectiveness.

 

  ”In the event of actual emergency, Gaminde says GHS/OCD will be using multiple modes of communication technology, including the All Hazards Alert Warning System sirens, the Emergency Alert System through television and radio, local media, SMS breaking news alerts through local media and telecommunication companies, mass notification email, social media, website and various emergency responders. 

 

   In the olden days, there were town criers; people waited forever for bits of information, uncertain what to do next. Nowadays, real-time information is at the tip of our fingers.   

 

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