The Social Tsunami

The past day and a half has passed in a blur of activity responding to the Chile earthquake and Pacific tsunami. I was awake for 40 hours working almost nonstop at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and only took a small break for about two hours on Saturday afternoon. The total elapsed time from our first to last tsunami bulletins was 27 hours - a record long event for us. It may have been exhausting, but it was rewarding work knowing that something I was doing was making a difference. This was, after all, the first Pacific-wide tsunami warning since 1964!  Below is a photo of one of our displays in the operations center showing estimated tsunami travel time contours just before the tsunami was due to strike Japan:

My involvement began around 9:30pm Friday night when I was called into the office to fix a problem with the PTWC website. I arrived wearing a T-shirt, Hawaiian board shorts, and slippers (flip flops) thinking I'd do the fix and go home right away. Little did I know the scale of the event that was about to unfold and the media attention it would garner. Otherwise, I might have dressed more appropriately and been on camera for some of the news media coverage.  Once the PTWC operations center became crowded with the media and other visitors, I felt uncomfortable in my unprofessional attire so I spent most of my time in my office answering the barrage of phone calls and emails we received.

Some calls were from concerned citizens asking what to do. Some were from officials in governments around the Pacific asking for information. Most calls were from the media, and I ended up recording at least 30 phone interviews for news outlets around the world. For example, I was on NPR, BBC (many times), Al Jazeera English (many times), Sky News (twice), BBC Breakfast, Fox and Friends, Fox News, CNN, CNN Radio, ABC, NBC, CBC, NHK, Good Morning America, KHON, and many more. I was also quoted in the "print" media such as the New York Times, LA Times, Huffington Post, Star Bulletin, Daily Telegraph, Examiner, and Pacific Daily News.  There was an interesting BBC interview with me as the first siren sounded in Hawaii, so they captured my reaction to it.  I was mis-quoted by CNN saying "We're going to air on the side of caution" instead of "err" that was picked up by dozens of sites.

You can listen to my NPR Weekend Edition and NPR Morning Edition interviews here:

Between phone calls, I was also tweeting and monitoring the social media outlets. I had done this previously during the Samoa and Vanuatu tsunamis last year with great success.  Over 100 new people started following me on twitter yesterday during the Chile event. I really enjoyed joining the collective conversation about the tsunami and contributing information from my perspective as a tsunami warning scientist.  The hitsunami website was a good example of the kind of mashup that can quickly be achieved using today's technology to serve a specific purpose like centralizing tsunami information for Hawaii and facilitating discussion.  Below is an example of the "tsunami" keyword trending from yesteday's event.  It peaked at over 4% of all tweets:

The tsunami warning system as we know it today was established in the 1950s and 60s during the era of teletype.  It is very hierarchical whereby the tsunami warning centers send messages to local government and emergency management officials who then mobilize their respective constituencies.  However, the average person today has access to so much more information compared to people from a generation ago.  Anyone can get tsunami warnings via PTWC's website, RSS feeds, email or SMS subscriptions.  A recent PEW survey has shown that more Americans get news from social media and the internet than any other source.

This implies that the top-down approach to tsunami warning may be less effective today than it once was, so I personally feel that the tsunami warning system needs to adapt to today's reality of instant information availability.  We should embrace social media and use it in a more grassroots approach to disseminate information about threats like tsunamis.  Of course, we also want to avoid diluting information or spreading of inaccurate information too, which is a risk when messages are passed around more:

PTWC doesn't have an official Twitter account or Facebook page anymore.  We used to. There was a government-wide lockdown on government social media accounts in mid-2009 due to concerns over the terms of use agreements in setting up accounts with services like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc. The PTWC twitter and Facebook accounts, which were fairly new at the time, had to be deactivated.  It's a real shame because there is tremendous interest out there.  I hope to re-establish them once the legal stuff is sorted out between the government and the social media services.

Hopefully this year we'll see not only the return of the tsunami warning centers to social media but also the establishment of a new tsunami web portal to improve and centralize how tsunami information is presented online.  NOAA has other portals like the new that are starting to show how organizing content based on topic rather than based on the organizational structure is a much more effective way to reach the intended audiences.  It's part of the gov2.0 strategy to make government information more open, transparent, and accessible.

I think everyone is glad yesterday's tsunami was not damaging.  However, some might feel that the event was overhyped in the media and that the warning was extreme.  The tsunami warning system is conservative in that the decision-making processes err on the side of caution and prefer to overwarn rather than underwarn.  After all, missing a potentially dangerous event would be unacceptable.  However, warnings and evacuations carry their own risks since they can incite panic, cause car accidents, and are expensive.  We must walk a fine line between keeping a conservative approach so we don't miss a warning with appearing to cry wolf because that will only serve to desensitive the citizenry to the threat in the future.  To quote a former mentor of mine, I think we threaded that needle between apathy and panic quite well yesterday, and the handling of the event was a resounding success.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are mine alone and don't necessarily represent those of NOAA.

UPDATE: 2 March 2010
Check out my interview with the AGU Geohazards Blog.


John Garcia said…
Awesome blog post, Brian!

Will definately be following you and your tweets during the next emergency situation.

Looking forward to the Gov 2.0 movement and seeing a forward thinking approach to future events.

John Garcia
Doc said…
I agree with John you did a killer job covering the events from yesterday. And I dream of a Gov 2.0 movement as so much could be learned form a potentially tragic situation.

Shawn "Doc" Boyd
Steve Lunceford said…
Cool to get a peek behind the scenes, John.

Shame you had to shut down official social accounts on Twitter and Facebook. PTWC is part of NOAA, correct? Which itself is part of Dept of Commerce? I was under the impression that most ambiguity around ToU's ended a while back, with listing approved social networks and Twitter's ToS being widely viewed as gov-friendly. Heck, even Commerce's @SecLocke is on Twitter (as are 2,600+ other accounts in
Matt Thyer said…
Coverage was awesome Brian, a PTWC broadcast on Twitter would solve a lot of problems immediately since a push feed of this nature can be subscribed to via just about any device. Imagine a future in which you can subscribe to the PTWC's warning feed on your cell phone. Need more information, click on the link and visit the site. If there's a problem with management in this case that's exactly where the problem resides. I can't account for that kind of shortsightedness, but can tell you that use of Twitter as a warning/information platform solve a lot of problems without investment, immediately.

BTW went trail running yesterday and as was thinking of suit designs.
Anonymous said…
Actually, the only lists ToS agreement with GSA - each Department has to review/approve the ToS agreements for their use. DoC has signed a few of the ToS agreements and is in the process of establishing a process to set up government accounts.
BrianShiro said…
Exactly. It's department-dependent, but the ice is breaking. Good things are coming.
Roxanne Darling said…
Dear Brian, Awesome details and graphics - mahalo nui for taking the time to do that after pulling a 40-hour shift! As I posted on Twitter, no apologies needed from PTWC - I personally believe the collective consciousness kicked in to "Butterfly Effect on Steroids" and helped calm the Pacific. I suppose you also saw last week that DOD has approved use of social media for its personnel.

I've been asking my followers to send thank you's to all of you there, as we do so appreciate the work, the intelligence, the caring, and the pressure involved in all that you do for us.
Norman Copeland said…
I'm just glad that someone as caring about the public welfare aswell as researching new and improved methods of protecting public interest is an acknowledged professional to consult.

I keep dreading the san antonio fault, I've been saying for years that magnet's would allow house's to hover above ground during such an event.

It could become government legislation one day when some more influencial people at the front of this generation get the nod to head the departments.

Charles Bolden of NASA has just organised three directors jobs that I assume will be managing the new research and development funding for the NASA 2011 budget, with some gratitude it could perhaps consider a simple building that hovers on magnets, it would be useful for off world exploration bases and would work for any surface, it would probably be the start of anti gravity platforms.


Popular posts from this blog

New CSA, ESA, and JAXA Astronauts

Insider tips on NASA's astronaut selection

The Astronaut Hopeful's Manifesto