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Emergency Social Media Needs To Be Tailored To Mobile Phones As Well As Computers

May 13th, 2009 · 3 Comments

I wanted to highlight points that two friends of this blog, Robin Parker and Jon Abolins, made last week in regard to government’s social media effort during the H1N1 flu outbreak. Both of them noted that social media content suitable for computer users is not necessarily effective for those utilizing a mobile phone, and that emergency communications must be developed with both in mind. In a comment posted to my blog entry, “H1N1 Flu Response Shows Government Needs To Improve Social Media Public Communications For Future Emergencies,” Parker, who manages the Oregon Trail Chapter of the Red Cross’ excellent Cross Blog, said of the governmental H1N1 social media efforts: 

They’ve been posting links to PDFs, but many people can’t click the links if they’re reading twitter from their mobile devices (or even some computers). If the CDC were to pull out the main points from those PDFs and tweet them it would be much more useful (and then people could easily retweet the info to correct misconceptions).

In a subsequent post, Jon Abolins concurred:

While we are looking at using social media, we can get locked into thinking of it as primarily *computer* media, forgetting the large part of social media & network that goes on with the mobiles…A key factor may be Gen Y’s preference for mobile phones for texting and other communications. Easier than pulling out the notebook PC, booting up, finding a WiFi connection, etc. The convenience factor points to why we must not forget the mobile phones. Many, if not most, people will have a mobile phone with them more often throughout the day than a computer. A continuous wireless connection on the go is more practical than with a laptop/netbook PC. (Yes, there are cellular Internet services for computers, but they are still too pricey for most people.) In an emergency, many people won’t be anywhere near a PC. But they will have a mobile phone. If there should be an evacuation, it is more likely that the mobile phone will go with the people than a PC. 

Abolins added an observation about mobile phones and foreign language capabilities:

Most mobes are limited to the Latin character set. (I cannot view Arabic, Hebrew or Russian texts on my mobe. The characters are rendered as blocks.) If an agency is seeking to communicate in other languages, it may be good to check mobile compatability and, perhaps, have alternate mobile-only versions. Some languages have Latin alphabet scheme for giving a pinyan/pidgin rendition of their texts. I can send you more info separately. The key point is for the agency to survey the non-English using communities and see how they handle mobile comms. E.g., Do they use a pidgin or transliteration scheme. Etc.

With much of government social media, particularly during emergencies, still largely in a developmental stage, the ability to distribute any information is a positive. Yet, going forward there is a need to make both the content and distribution more comprehensive and tailored.

I want to also mention that Abolins, an information technology specialist, lectures frequently on pandemic flu preparedness. He recently made a presentation to the New Jersey chapter of Infragard called, “21st  Century Flu Pandemic Insights from 20th Century History”. The pdf can be found here.

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Tags: Preparedness 2.0

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jonathan D. Abolins // May 13, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    John, thanks for this posting and covering this topic.

    If soem readers are wondering what I meant by the various techniques to handle languages that aren’t supported on devices, I’ll give some some examples of “Romanization” of Arabic texts.

    For Arabic, there are things such as Arabic Chat Alphabet. Wikipedia entry:

    A good presentation on Decoding Arabic Chat:

    The same general concepts can be found for other languages, including Hebrew, Russian, Chinese, etc.

    The key thing is finidng out what the non-English readers in your audience are doing with their mobile devices. Otherwise, much effort could be spent in translating info into other languages for mobile device access but it isn’t accessible when it’s most needed. Get people from the non-English reading community involved in the design and testing.

  • 2 John Shea // May 13, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    That was one of the key lessons learned Janice Nall expressed at a workshop on Monday. CDC has really taken the lead on mobile communication research (NOAA is very good, as is DC gov’t), but the rest of the public information apparatus needs to catch up with the need to identify appropriate delivery methods for initial and subsequent messages. It really culminates in gov’t having to rethink its audience.

  • 3 Jonas Landgren // May 15, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I do believe that John is absolutely right in the observation that mobile devices are becoming more and more critical when designing apps and services for crisis communication. However, I would like to push it a bit longer and make a perhaps even stronger statement.

    The only thing we will know for sure in times of large scale emergencies and crisis are that people in formal and informal response organizations will have a mobile phone in their pockets. So the challenge is not to only tailor applications for the mobile devices, but to actually rethink the complete application paradigm and shift the design to applications that truly make full use of the fact that mobile devices has completely unique features that computers still do not have. A mobile device is not a laptop or a small version of a stationary computer. In terms of a mobile phone, it is a consumer electronic product with a different set of design dimensions that crisis management software vendors still have a hard time to make use of. We need new business models, new interaction models, and new infrastructure and development models that fundamentally are different to the old “we are investing in crisis-IT” perspective. Most organizations are not at all interested in IT, but they are desperate for better technology use. I would argue that much can be learn from the design of social media where a completely different is emerging. The mobile device is not small laptop, it is something different and this difference should be explored. In my research group we have young ambitious students that cannot wait to lay their hands of the intellectual goods that is produced in the intersection between formal and informal organizations and crisis response.

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